ArtIII.S2.C1.7.5 Fitness and Ripeness

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 Supreme Court has considered several factors when determining whether an issue is “fit” for judicial review under Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner. First, the Court has inquired whether further factual development would make it easier to resolve the parties’ dispute.1 For instance, in National Park Hospitality Ass’n v. Department of Interior, a nonprofit trade association challenged a National Park Service regulation that purported to render the Contract Disputes Act of 1978 (CDA) inapplicable to certain government contracts.2 Noting that the CDA’s applicability could vary from contract to contract, the Court determined that awaiting further factual development in the form of a dispute over a particular contract would facilitate the Court’s review of the regulation.3 The Court therefore deemed the challenge unripe.4

By contrast, cases presenting purely legal rather than factual questions are more likely to be fit for immediate adjudication.5 For example, in Pacific Gas & Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission, the Supreme Court held that whether federal law preempted a state statute was primarily a legal question and therefore ripe for judicial review.6

A claim may not be fit for adjudication if it is based on “contingent future events that may not occur as anticipated, or indeed may not occur at all.” 7 For instance, in Texas v. United States, the State of Texas asked a federal district court to determine the validity of certain provisions of the Texas Education Code that permitted the state to sanction local school districts if they failed to meet state-mandated educational achievement levels.8 Because the Supreme Court did not know whether or when the State would ever issue such a sanction, the Court unanimously concluded that the validity of the Texas statute was not yet ripe for adjudication.9

Similarly, when a party challenges the constitutionality of a state law, but that state’s courts have not yet had an opportunity to delimit the scope and applicability of that law, the claim may be unfit for adjudication.10 As the Supreme Court has noted, waiting until state courts have had a chance to interpret a challenged law may sharpen the issues for judicial review.11

See, e.g., Nat’l Park Hosp. Ass’n v. Dep’t of Interior, 538 U.S. 803, 812; Ohio Forestry Ass’n, Inc. v. Sierra Club, 523 U.S. 726, 737 (1998); Duke Power Co. v. Carolina Envtl. Study Grp., Inc., 438 U.S. 59, 82 (1978). back
538 U.S. at 804–05. back
See id. ( “[F]urther factual development would ‘significantly advance our ability to deal with the legal issues presented’ . . . [J]udicial resolution of the question presented here should await a concrete dispute about a particular concession contract.” ) (quoting Duke Power, 438 U.S. at 82). back
Id. at 805. back
See Whitman v. Am. Trucking Ass’ns, Inc., 531 U.S. 457, 479 (2001); Thomas v. Union Carbide Agric. Prods. Co., 473 U.S. 568, 581 (1985). back
See 461 U.S. 190, 201 (1983). back
Texas v. United States, 523 U.S. 296, 300 (1998) (quoting Thomas, 473 U.S. at 580–81). See also Trump v. New York, No. 20-366, slip op. at 4 (U.S. Dec. 18, 2020) (applying this rule); Ohio Forestry Ass’n, Inc. v. Sierra Club, 523 U.S. 726, 736 (1998) ( “[D]epending upon the agency’s future actions to revise the Plan or modify the expected methods of implementation, review now may turn out to have been unnecessary.” ). back
Texas, 523 U.S. at 297, 299. back
Id. at 300 (quoting Toilet Goods Ass’n, Inc. v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 158, 163 (1967)). back
See id. at 301; Renne v. Geary, 501 U.S. 312, 323 (1991). back
Renne, 501 U.S. at 323. ( “Postponing consideration of the questions presented, until a more concrete controversy arises, also has the advantage of permitting the state courts further opportunity to construe [the challenged law], and perhaps in the process to ‘materially alter the question to be decided.’” ) (quoting Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat’l Union, 442 U.S. 289, 306 (1979)); Texas, 523 U.S. at 301. In this respect, ripeness dovetails with the various abstention doctrines that federal courts utilize to avoid interfering with the states. For an overview of those doctrines, see generally ArtIII.S1.6.7 Federal Non-Interference with State Jurisdiction and Abstention. back