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CRS Annotated Constitution

Article III -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

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.1161 Abstention is not proper, however, where the rel[p.799]evant state law is settled,1162 nor where it is clear that the state statute or action challenged is unconstitutional no matter how the state court construes state law.1163 Federal jurisdiction is not ousted by abstention; rather it is postponed.1164 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.1165

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.1166 Time–consuming[p.800]delays1167 and piecemeal resolution of important questions1168 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,1169 and for awhile cases involving First Amendment expression guarantees seemed to be sheltered as well, but this is no longer the rule.1170 Abstention developed robustly with Younger v. Harris,1171 and its progeny.

Exhaustion of State Remedies.—A complainant will ordinarily be required, as a matter of comity, to exhaust all his state legislative and administrative remedies before seeking relief in federal court where such remedies are, of course, available.1172 To do so may make unnecessary federal–court adjudication. The complainant will ordinarily not be required, however, to exhaust his state judicial remedies, inasmuch as it is a litigant’s choice to proceed in either state or federal courts when the alternatives exist and a question for judicial adjudication is present.1173 But when a litigant is suing for protection of federally–guaranteed civil rights, he need not exhaust any kind of state remedy.1174


Footnotes

1161 C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts (St. Paul: 4th ed. 1983), 13. The basic doctrine was formulated by Justice Frankfurter for the Court in Railroad Comm. 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 the administration by a State of its own affairs, Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943); Alabama Pubic Service Comm. 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 Thiobodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959). See also Clay v. Sun Insurance Office Ltd., 363 U.S. 207 (1960). Also, while 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).

Supplement: [Pp. 798–99, add to n.1161:]

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.

1162 City of Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S.F.R. Co., 357 U.S. 77 (1958); Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 249–251 (1967). See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat. Union, 442 U.S. 289, 306 (1979) (quoting Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534–535 (1965)).
1163 Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534–535 (1965); Babbitt v. United Farm Workers, 442 U.S. 289, 305–312 (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. Constanineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971); Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 379 n. 5 (1978); Douglas v. Seacoast Products, 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 Comrs. 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).
1164 American Trial Lawyers Assn. 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 Comrs. v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77, 88 n. 14 (1975).
1165 E.g., Spector Motor Service v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101 (1944); Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thiobodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959); Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959).
1166 McNeese v. Board of Education, 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).
1167 England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 426 (1964) (Justice Douglas concurring). See C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts (St. Paul: 4th ed. 1983), 305.
1168 Baggett 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).
1169 Compare Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959), with McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668 (1963).
1170 Compare 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).
1171 401 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, 112Ct.2206,2215 (1992).
1172 The rule was formulated in Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210 (1908), and Bacon v. Rutland R. Co., 232 U.S. 134 (1914).
1173 City Bank Farmers’ Trust Co. v. Schnader, 291 U.S. 24 (1934); Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939). But see Alabama Public Service Comm. v. Southern Ry. Co., 341 U.S. 341 (1951). Exhaustion of state court remedies is required in habeas corpus cases and usually in suits to restrain state court proceedings.
1174 Patsy v. Board of Regents, 457 U.S. 496 (1982). Where there are pending administrative proceedings that fall within the Younger rule, a litigant must exhaust. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), as explicated in Ohio Civil Rights Comm. v. Dayton Christian School, Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 627 n. 2 (1986). Under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring employment discrimination on racial and other specified grounds, the EEOC may not consider a claim until a state agency having jurisdiction over employment discrimination complaints has had at least 60 days to resolve the matter. 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e –5(c). See Love v. Pullman Co., 404 U.S. 522 (1972). And under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, there is a requirement of exhaustion, where States have federally–approved procedures. See Patsy, supra, 507–513.
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