ArtIII.S1.1.1.2.3.4.1 Federal Court Non-Interference With State Jurisdiction: Overview

Article III, Section 1:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

Abstention

Perhaps the fullest expression of the concept of comity may be found in the abstention doctrine. The abstention doctrine instructs federal courts to abstain from exercising jurisdiction if applicable state law, which would be dispositive of the controversy, is unclear and a state court interpretation of the state law question might obviate the necessity of deciding a federal constitutional issue. 1 Abstention is not proper, however, where the relevant state law is settled, 2 or where it is clear that the state statute or action challenged is unconstitutional no matter how the state court construes state law. 3 Federal jurisdiction is not ousted by abstention; rather it is postponed. 4 Federal-state tensions would be ameliorated through federal-court deference to the concept that state courts are as adequate a protector of constitutional liberties as the federal courts and through the minimization of the likelihood that state programs would be thwarted by federal intercession. Federal courts would benefit because time and effort would not be expended in decision of difficult constitutional issues which might not require decision. 5

During the 1960s, the abstention doctrine was in disfavor with the Supreme Court, suffering rejection in numerous cases, most of them civil rights and civil liberties cases. 6 Time-consuming delays 7 and piecemeal resolution of important questions 8 were cited as a too-costly consequence of the doctrine. Actions brought under the civil rights statutes seem not to have been wholly subject to the doctrine, 9 and for awhile cases involving First Amendment expression guarantees seemed to be sheltered as well, but this is no longer the rule. 10 Abstention developed robustly with Younger v. Harris, 11 and its progeny.

Footnotes

  1.  Jump to essay-1C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts 13 (4th ed. 1983). The basic doctrine was formulated by Justice Frankfurter for the Court in Railroad Comm’n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). Other strands of the doctrine are that a federal court should refrain from exercising jurisdiction in order to avoid needless conflict with a state's administration of its own affairs, Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943); Alabama Public Service Comm’n v. Southern Ry., 341 U.S. 341 (1951); Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293 (1943); Martin v. Creasy, 360 U.S. 219 (1959); Moses H. Cone Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1 (1983); New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of the City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350 (1989) (carefully reviewing the scope of the doctrine), especially where state law is unsettled. Meredith v. City of Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228 (1943); County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185 (1959); Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959). See also Clay v. Sun Insurance Office Ltd., 363 U.S. 207 (1960). Also, although pendency of an action in state court will not ordinarily cause a federal court to abstain, there are exceptional circumstances in which it should. Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976); Will v. Calvert Fire Insurance Co., 437 U.S. 655 (1978); Arizona v. San Carlos Apache Tribe, 463 U.S. 545 (1983). But, in Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706 (1996), an exercise in Burford abstention, the Court held that federal courts have power to dismiss or remand cases based on abstention principles only where relief being sought is equitable or otherwise discretionary but may not do so in common-law actions for damages.
  2.  Jump to essay-2City of Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S.F. Ry., 357 U.S. 77 (1958); Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 249-51 (1967). See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l. Union, 442 U.S. 289, 306 (1979) (quoting Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534-35 (1965)).
  3.  Jump to essay-3Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534-35 (1965); Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l., 442 U.S. 289, 305-12 (1979). Abstention is not proper simply to afford a state court the opportunity to hold that a state law violates the federal Constitution. Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971); Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 379 n.5 (1978); Douglas v. Seacoast Products, Inc., 431 U.S. 265, 271 n.4 (1977); City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987) (A federal court may not properly ask a state court if it would care in effect to rewrite a statute). But if the statute is clear and there is a reasonable possibility that the state court would find it in violation of a distinct or specialized state constitutional provision, abstention may be proper, Harris County Comm'rs Court v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77 (1975); Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82 (1970), although not if the state and federal constitutional provisions are alike. Examining Bd. v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 598 (1976).
  4.  Jump to essay-4American Trial Lawyers Ass'n v. New Jersey Supreme Court, 409 U.S. 467, 469 (1973); Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959). Dismissal may be necessary if the state court will not accept jurisdiction while the case is pending in federal court. Harris County Comm'rs v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77, 88 n.14 (1975).
  5.  Jump to essay-5E.g., Spector Motor Service v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101 (1944); Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959); Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959).
  6.  Jump to essay-6McNeese v. Cahokia Bd. of Educ., 373 U.S. 668 (1963); Griffin v. School Board, 377 U.S. 218 (1964); Hostetter v. Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp., 377 U.S. 324 (1964); Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964); Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678 (1964); Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965); Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965); Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241 (1967); Wisconsin v. Constanineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971).
  7.  Jump to essay-7England v. Louisiana Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 426 (1964) (Justice Douglas concurring). See C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts 305 (4th ed. 1983).
  8.  Jump to essay-8Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 378-379 (1964). Both consequences may be alleviated substantially by state adoption of procedures by which federal courts may certify to the state's highest court questions of unsettled state law which would be dispositive of the federal court action. The Supreme Court has actively encouraged resort to certification where it exists. Clay v. Sun Insurance Office Ltd., 363 U.S. 207 (1960); Lehman Brothers v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386 (1974); Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 151 (1976).
  9.  Jump to essay-9Compare Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959), with McNeese v. Cahokia Bd. of Educ., 373 U.S. 668 (1963).
  10.  Jump to essay-10Compare Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964), and Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965), with Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971). See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers, 442 U.S. 289, 305-312 (1979).
  11.  Jump to essay-11401 U.S. 37 (1971). There is room to argue whether the Younger line of cases represents the abstention doctrine at all, but the Court continues to refer to it in those terms. E.g., Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 705 (1992); Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. ___, No. 12-815, slip op. (2013).