Abstention doctrine

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An abstention doctrine is any of several doctrines that a court of law might (or in some cases must) apply to refuse to hear a case, when hearing the case would potentially intrude upon the powers of another court. Such doctrines are usually invoked where lawsuits involving the same issues are brought in two different courts at the same time.

The United States has a federal court system with limitations on the cases that federal courts can hear, while each U.S. state has its own individual court system. In some instances, the jurisdiction of these courts overlaps, so a lawsuit between two parties may be brought in either court - or in both. The latter circumstance can lead to confusion, waste of resources, and the appearance that one court is disrespecting the other. Both federal and state courts have developed rules determining when one court will defer to another's jurisdiction over a particular case.

Federal abstention doctrines

The various abstention doctrines applied by federal courts are named for the Supreme Court cases in which they were enunciated.

Pullman Abstention

Pullman abstention was the first "doctrine of abstention" to be announced by the Court, and is named for Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). This doctrine permits a federal court to stay a plaintiff's claim that a state law violates the Constitution until the state's judiciary has had an opportunity to apply the law to the plaintiff's particular case. The hope is to avoid a federal constitutional ruling by allowing the state courts either to construct the law in a way that eliminates the constitutional problem or to rule it void under the state's own constitution.

For Pullman abstention to be invoked, three conditions must be apparent:

  1. There must be a state law issue that is potentially dispositive;
  2. That state law must be unclear; and
  3. That disposing of state law will avoid constitutional question

Under Pullman abstention, the federal court retains jurisdiction to hear the constitutional issues in case if the state court's resolution is still constitutionally suspect. In Government and Civil Employees Organizing Committee, CIO v. Windsor, 353 U.S. 364 (1957) the Supreme Court held that litigants must inform the state court that they are contending that the state law violates a federal constitutional provision, so that the state court may take that into consideration when interpreting the state statute. However, in England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners 375 U.S. 411 (1964), the Supreme Court noted that the litigants must not ask the state court to resolve the constitutional issue itself, or the federal court would be bound by res judicata to follow the decision of the state court. In such a case, the litigant seeking a judgment that the law is unconstitutional must usually appeal to the higher courts of the state, rather than seeking review in a federal court.

Younger Abstention

Younger abstention, named for Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), is less permissive to the federal courts, barring them from hearing civil rights tort claims brought by a person who is currently being prosecuted for a matter arising from that claim. For example, if an individual who was charged with drug possession believes that the search was illegal, and in violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, that person may have a cause of action to sue the state for illegally searching him. However, a federal court will not hear the case until the person is acquitted of the crime. The doctrine has been extended to situations where the state is seeking to execute a civil fine against someone, or has jailed a person for contempt of court. The doctrine applies even where the state does not bring an action until after the person has filed a lawsuit in federal court, provided that the federal court has not yet taken any action on the suit.

There are three exceptions to Younger abstention:

  • 1. Where the prosecution is in bad faith (i.e. the state knows the person to be innocent); or
  • 2. Where the prosecution is part of some pattern of harassment against an individual; or
  • 3. Where the law being enforced is utterly and irredeemably unconstitutional (e.g., if the state were to pass a law making it a crime to say anything negative about its governor under any circumstances).

Burford Abstention and Thibodaux Abstention

Burford abstention, derived from Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943), allows a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction to abstain where the state courts likely have greater expertise in a particularly complex area of state law (the case itself dealt with the regulation of oil drilling operations in the State of Texas, which had developed an extensive body of law in that area). This is closely related to Thibodaux abstention, derived from Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959), which occurs when a federal court sitting in diversity jurisdiction chooses to allow a state to decide issues of state law that are of great public importance to that state, to the extent that a federal determination would infringe on state sovereignty.

Unlike the abstention doctrines raised in federal question cases, there is a strong presumption that federal courts should not apply Burford or Thibidaux Abstention.

Colorado River Abstention

Finally, Colorado River abstention, from Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976) comes into play where parallel litigation is being carried out, particularly where federal and state court proceedings are simultaneously being carried out to determine the rights of parties with respect to the same questions of law. Under such circumstances, it makes little sense for two courts to expend the time and effort to achieve a resolution of the question.

Unlike other abstention doctrines, application of the Colorado River doctrine is prudential and discretionary, and is based less on comity or respect between different court systems than on the desire to avoid wasteful duplication of litigation. The classification of the doctrine as a form of abstention has been disputed, with some courts simply calling it a "doctrine of exceptional circumstances". Each of the various federal circuits has come up with their own list of factors to weigh in determining whether a federal court should abstain from hearing a case under this doctrine. Typically, such factors include:

  • the order in which the courts assumed jurisdiction over property
  • the order in which the courts assumed jurisdiction over the parties
  • the relative inconvenience of the fora
  • the relative progress of the two actions
  • the desire to avoid piecemeal litigation
  • whether federal law provides the rule of decision
  • whether the state court will adequately protect the rights of all parties
  • whether the federal filing was vexatious (intended to harass the other party) or reactive (in response to adverse rulings in the state court).

Note on the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine

The Rooker-Feldman doctrine has some characteristics of an abstention doctrine, because it prohibits federal court review of state court actions. However, it does not require federal courts to abstain from hearing cases pending action in the state court, but instead deems that federal courts lack jurisdiction to hear cases already fully decided in state courts, because Congress has provided no appellate jurisdiction running from state courts to lower federal courts.

State court abstention doctrines

No overarching rules national rule exists to require state courts to abstain from hearing cases brought in federal courts, or in the courts of other states. However, every state has developed, either through its courts or by legislation, some doctrine under which its courts may stay their actions in order to avoid the duplication of efforts with another court hearing the same cause of action.

In some states, doctrines exist which permit state courts to abstain from hearing cases already before other kinds of tribunals. For example, in the case of Gavle v. Little Six, Inc., 555 N.W.2d 284 (Minn. 1996), the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld abstention by a state court where the state court might "undermine the authority of the tribal courts over Reservation affairs" or "infringe on the right of Indians to govern themselves".