ArtIII.S1.6.7 Federal Non-Interference with State Jurisdiction and Abstention

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.

Perhaps the fullest expression of the concept of comity may be found in the abstention doctrine.1 The abstention doctrine instructs federal courts to abstain from exercising jurisdiction if applicable state law, which would be dispositive to the controversy, is unclear and a state court’s interpretation of the state law might make resolving a federal constitutional issue unnecessary.2 Abstention is not proper, however, where the relevant state law is settled,3 or where it is clear that the state statute or action challenged is unconstitutional no matter how the state court construes state law.4 Federal jurisdiction is not ousted by abstention; rather it is postponed.5 The Supreme Court has said that abstention can serve interests of federal-state comity by avoiding “a result in ‘needless friction with state policies,’” 6 and can spare “the federal courts of unnecessary constitutional adjudication.” 7

During the 1960s, the Supreme Court disfavored the abstention doctrine, rejecting it in numerous cases, most of which concerned civil rights and civil liberties.8 The Court cited time-consuming delays9 and piecemeal resolution of important questions10 as too-costly consequences of the doctrine. In addition to actions brought under civil rights statutes,11 the Court, for a while, appeared to shelter cases involving First Amendment expression guarantees from the abstention doctrine, but this is no longer the rule.12 Younger v. Harris13 and its progeny signaled a trend toward the Court applying the absention doctrine more robustly.

As an alternative to abstention, the Supreme Court has sometimes encouraged or required lower federal courts to use certification procedures where they are available.14 While this process is not grounded in the federal constitution, certification may allow federal courts to avoid relying on the abstention doctrine. Most states have adopted rules that allow federal courts to “certify,” or refer, unsettled questions of state law to state courts.15 The Court has sometimes required lower federal courts to certify to state courts questions which concern “novel issues of state law peculiarly calling for the exercise of judgment by the state courts,” and involve construing a state law that is being challenged as unconstitutional.16 The Court has also noted that certification may be appropriate where abstention would lead to undue “delay and expense” —although such concerns may not be sufficient to require a federal court to employ certification rather than abstention.17

For a definition and discussion of comity, see ArtIII.S2.C1.18.2 Suits Involving Foreign States. back
C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts 13 (4th ed. 1983). The basic doctrine was formulated by Justice Felix Frankfurter for the Court in R. Comm’n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). Another feature of the doctrine is 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); Ala. Pub. Serv. Comm’n v. S. 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 Pub. Serv., 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); Cnty. of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185 (1959); La. Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959). See also Clay v. Sun Ins. Off. Ltd., 363 U.S. 207 (1960). Also, although the sole fact that an action is pending in state court will not ordinarily cause a federal court to abstain, there are “exceptional” circumstances in which it should. Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976); Will v. Calvert Fire Ins. 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. back
City 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)). back
Harman 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 Prods., 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 Cnty. Comm’rs Ct. 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). back
Am. Trial Laws. Ass’n v. N.J. Sup. Ct., 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. Moore, 420 U.S. at 88 n.14. back
La. Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25, 33 (1959) (quoting R.R. Comm’n of Tex. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 500 (1941)). back
Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167, 177 (1959). back
McNeese v. Cahokia Bd. of Educ., 373 U.S. 668 (1963); Griffin v. Sc. Bd., 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). back
England v. Loa. Bd. of Med. Exam’rs, 375 U.S. 411, 426 (1964) (Douglas, J., concurring). See C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts 305 (4th ed. 1983). back
Baggett, 377 U.S. at 378–379. back
Compare Harrison, 360 U.S. 167 (1959), with McNeese v. Cahokia Bd. of Educ., 373 U.S. 668 (1963). back
Compare Baggett, 377 U.S. 360, 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). back
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, 504 U.S. 689, 705 (1992); Sprint Commc’ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. 69 (2013). back
E.g., Mckesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108, slip op. at 5 (U.S. Nov. 2, 2020); Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 151 (1976); Lehman Bros. v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386, 390–91 (1974); Clay v. Sun Ins. Off. Ltd., 363 U.S. 207, 212 (1960). back
See, e.g., Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 79 (1997) (describing certification and concluding that a federal appeals court erred when it “blend[ed]” the abstention inquiry with the certification inquiry). back
Mckesson, slip op. at 4–5; see also Arizonans for Official English, 520 U.S. at 79. back
Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 470–71 (1987). Cf., e.g., Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman, No. 15-1391, slip op. at 6–10 (U.S. Mar. 29, 2017) (Sotomayor, J., concurring) (comparing abstention with certification, and concluding that the lower court abused its discretion when it decided not to certify and instead “chose a convoluted course” by abstaining in part and deciding the question in part). back