ArtIII.S2.C1.3.2.3 The Doctrine of "Strict Necessity"

Article III, Section 2, Clause 1:

The Judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority;—to all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls;—to all Cases of admiralty and maritime Jurisdiction; to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party;—to Controversies between two or more States; between a State and Citizens of another State; between Citizens of different States,—between Citizens of the same State claiming Lands under Grants of different States, and between a State, or the Citizens thereof, and foreign States, Citizens or Subjects.

The Court has repeatedly declared that it will decide constitutional issues only if strict necessity compels it to do so. Thus, constitutional questions will not be decided in broader terms than are required by the precise state of facts to which the ruling is to be applied, nor if the record presents some other ground upon which to decide the case, nor at the instance of one who has availed himself of the benefit of a statute or who fails to show he is injured by its operation, nor if a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the question may be fairly avoided. 1

Speaking of the policy of avoiding the decision of constitutional issues except when necessary, Justice Rutledge wrote: "The policy’s ultimate foundations, some if not all of which also sustain the jurisdictional limitation, lie in all that goes to make up the unique place and character, in our scheme, of judicial review of governmental action for constitutionality. They are found in the delicacy of that function, particularly in view of possible consequences for others stemming also from constitutional roots; the comparative finality of those consequences; the consideration due to the judgment of other repositories of constitutional power concerning the scope of their authority; the necessity, if government is to function constitutionally, for each to keep within its power, including the courts; the inherent limitations of the judicial process, arising especially from its largely negative character and limited resources of enforcement; withal in the paramount importance of constitutional adjudication in our system." 2

Footnotes

  1.  Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 331 U.S. 549, 568-75 (1947). See also Berea College v. Kentucky, 211 U.S. 45, 53 (1908); Siler v. Louisville & Nashville R.R., 213 U.S. 175, 191 (1909); Carter v. Carter Coal Co., 298 U.S. 238, 325 (1936); Coffman v. Breeze Corp., 323 U.S. 316, 324-325 (1945); Spector Motor Service v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101, 105 (1944); Alma Motor v. Timken Co., 329 U.S. 129 (1946). Judicial restraint as well as considerations of comity underlie the Court's abstention doctrine when the constitutionality of state laws is challenged.
  2.  Rescue Army v. Municipal Court, 331 U.S. 549, 571 (1947).