Federal Court Abstention Doctrine
A concept that is difficult to master for even the most intelligent legal scholars is that of abstention. Abstention is where the court that is hearing the case chooses not to go forward so the other court can adjudicate the action.
IntroductionIn many ways, abstention is the result of a system in which there is no mechanism to force courts to stop adjudicating cases when there is parallel litigation proceeding. In some ways it is constitutional avoidance taken to the extreme. If there is a case where a constitutional issue could be implicated, yet if another court interprets the case in a certain way the constitutional issue is not raised, abstention applies. Many law school federal courts classes study abstention in detail.
Pullman, the first or most famous abstention case.Pullman was a 1941 Supreme Court case. There the Court had to deal with the thorny issue of racial discrimination in employment on the railways in Texas. The Court didn't seem ready at the time to make a large Constitutional decision of such magnitude and thus invoked abstention. The Federal claims at issue in the lawsuit were Equal Protection Clause from the Federal Constitution.. There was also a supplemental state law claim about if the TX railroad commission had the authority to promulgate the rule. The case filed was clearly within supreme court's jurisdiction. The Supreme Court decided the Federal district court must dismiss the case. The Court shows that abstention can be reversible error in this decision.
Pullman stands for several propositions: 1) The State law claim could be dispositive. 2) The Court assumes that State Courts are better at resolving state law Qs. 3) The State law Q must be unclear. 4) Const avoidance allowed and the impetus for the doctrine. 5) Pullman involved sensitive matters. 6) The Court relied on its inherent powers of equitable discretion.
Younger AbstentionThe Supreme Court stated that federal courts should abstain from enjoining state court criminal proceedings, if the proceedings have already began. In very limited circumstances issuing the injunction would be permissible: If irreparable harm is both great and immediate, or where state law is flagrant and patent violation of express Constitutional provisions or where there*s bad faith or harassment. 18 USC 1983 changed the relationship between the states and the federal government. The Supreme Court held the federal district court erred in deciding that it absolutely lacked power in 1983 action to enjoin proceeding in state court under any circumstances whatsoever.
ConclusionIn a typical Pullman case the issue is whether federal plaintiffs should go to state court for state law issues. The result of applying Pullman is the federal issue is postponed.
In a typical Younger case the issue is whether a state proceeding should be litigated at all. Dismissal is the usual result.
Some criticisms of the doctrine is that it does not respect congressional policy of requiring abstention in suits under 18 USC 1983. It relegates plaintiffs with federal law claims to state forums, and erects a barrier to prospective and class relief.
Understanding when abstention can apply is challenging, keeping in mind these basic guidelines give you an excellent place to start.