If a person is sanctioned for a violation of state law and all state courts affirm
the punishment, can that person appeal to the federal courts? Generally, the
answer is no. To have a federal court review a state court decision, a federal
question must be involved. Even then, one must show a lack of opportunity to
bring the claim in the state court. The mere existence of a federal claim does
not guarantee access to federal courts after a state court judgment because of
the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata. This doctrine declares that
an issue or claim that has already been settled in a proper judicial hearing can
not be relitigated in a different venue. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 or the federal habeas
corpus statute may apply if a criminal conviction was in violation of a
constitutional right such as due process. However, although a federal claim or
issue exists, there is no right to have it heard in federal court when a state
court has already reviewed it. The Supreme Court applied this doctrine to a
man convicted in Missouri state court on criminal charges. After the conviction,
he brought a § 1983 action against the arresting officers for unconstitutional
search and seizure. The Court dismissed his claim, holding that a civil or
criminal litigant does not automatically get to litigate at the federal level a §
1983 claim when that issue has been settled in state court. There is no
"generally framed principle that every person asserting a federal right is
entitled to one unencumbered opportunity to litigate that right in a federal
district court." Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 103 (1980).
To contrast, a woman was convicted of disorderly conduct under Pennsylvania
law for offensive speech to police officers. She eventually appealed to the
Third Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, and was granted habeas corpus review
because her conviction was in violation of her due process rights under the U.S.
Constitution. Pringle v. Court of Common Pleas, 778 F.2d 998 (3d Cir. 1985).
Her constitutional claim was raised in state court and denied, so it was not
deemed to be a vehicle simply to get her case into federal court.