Earlier this week, a federal court dismissed a student’s lawsuit against University of Kentucky administrators under a doctrine requiring that federal courts defer to state proceedings under certain circumstances. The court’s decision turned on its conclusion that the student’s sexual misconduct hearing at the University of Kentucky was an official “state proceeding … akin to a criminal prosecution.” Although the ruling itself is technical in nature, the court’s opinion bolsters the arguments of due process advocates by recognizing the high stakes of campus sexual misconduct proceedings.
In this case, a student—proceeding under the pseudonym John Doe—sued to prevent the University of Kentucky from holding a third hearing on sexual misconduct allegations against him. In each of his first two hearings, he was found responsible by a hearing panel, but both times, that result was overturned by the university’s Appeals Board on due process grounds. Among other things, the Appeals Board found that one of the defendant administrators had withheld “critical evidence and witness questions from the Hearing Panel” in the first hearing.
When the student conduct office scheduled a third hearing, “Doe filed this action seeking to enjoin Defendants from conducting the third hearing based on alleged constitutional flaws in the University’s policies and procedures that govern sexual misconduct hearings and asserting due process and equal protection claims under the U.S. Constitution and federal laws.” Doe v. Hazard, No. 5:15-cv-00300, at 4 (E.D. Ky. Jan. 15, 2016).
The central question before the court was whether it must abstain from hearing the student’s case under a doctrine established by the Supreme Court in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971). The court here explains that doctrine quite well:
Stated generally, Younger abstention is a legal doctrine that warrants against federal court interference with pending state judicial proceedings absent extraordinary circumstances. The Younger doctrine is based on principles of equity and comity, including “a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways.” Younger, 401 U.S. at 44. Pursuant to Younger, this Court should abstain where “there are state proceedings that are (1) currently pending; (2) involve an important state interest; and (3) will provide the federal plaintiff with an adequate opportunity to raise his or her constitutional claims.”
Doe, No. 5:15-cv-00300 at 5–6.
As a threshold question, the court had to decide whether the university’s sexual misconduct proceedings are “state proceedings” within the meaning of Younger. The court ruled that they are, because they are “akin to criminal prosecutions” in “important respects”:
UK, an arm of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, initiated the investigation and enforcement action against Doe, and there are many procedures incorporated into the UK disciplinary system that are akin to a criminal prosecution. As discussed above, upon notice of an allegation of sexual misconduct by a student, the [Office of Student Conduct] conducts an investigation and, if the allegations are supported by reasonable suspicion, initiates a disciplinary proceeding. The accused receives notice of the charges, a hearing before an independent fact-finding panel, the assistance of an attorney or advisor, the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, the opportunity to call witnesses and present relevant evidence to advocate a defense. If the student is found to be in violation of the Code of Student Conduct, he or she is subject to sanctions, including suspension or expulsion from the University, and permitted an appeal to an independent tribunal. Although not addressed by the Sixth Circuit, the Ninth Circuit has held that where legal representation at a hearing is present and tangible sanctions may be imposed, the adjudicatory hearing is both “quasi-judicial” and “quasi-criminal” and that Younger applies.
Id. at 9.
After ruling that the proceedings were indeed qualifying “state proceedings,” the court also held that they involved important state interests, including—critically—“an immense and vital interest in establishing a fair and just disciplinary system to administer the Code of Student Conduct that applies to its students to prevent such conduct.” Id. at 9–10. The court then found that the student plaintiff would have an adequate chance to raise his constitutional claims within the university proceeding—via the Appeals Board—and concluded that it must abstain from hearing the case under Younger.
The student plaintiff argued that the university proceedings should not fall within Younger, and thus that his federal lawsuit should be allowed to proceed. But this is actually a good ruling for due process, because it recognizes that university sexual misconduct proceedings are serious matters with “tangible sanctions” like suspension or expulsion, and that states have an important interest in ensuring those procedures are fair. Indeed, FIRE has been arguing that university sexual assault hearings are “quasi-criminal” proceedings since May 5, 2011—just a month after the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights issued its controversial “Dear Colleague” letter.
Of course, the court’s ruling also turned partially on the particular procedures offered by the university, including a hearing and the opportunity for cross-examination. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether a court would still find a public university’s sexual misconduct proceedings to be “quasi-criminal” if the university in question had (as so many schools have) dispensed with a hearing process in favor of the “single investigator” model. I hope the answer to that question would be yes—certainly, a university should not be able to escape the moral obligations that accompany trying someone for a serious offense like sexual assault simply by making its procedures less like an actual criminal proceeding and more like a kangaroo court. But only time will tell. FIRE will continue to monitor the latest legal developments in this rapidly changing area of the law, and we will keep you posted.