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Abstention Doctrine


The concept under which a federal court exercises its discretion and equitable powers and declines to decide a legal action over which it has jurisdiction pursuant to the Constitution and statutes where the state judiciary is capable of rendering a definitive ruling in the matter.

The abstention doctrine was adopted by the Supreme Court to allow the federal judiciary to refrain from ruling on constitutional questions. Because it has no explicit source in federal or state laws, it is the exception to the general rule that a litigant may sue or be sued in federal court if the federal court has jurisdiction, or power to hear the case. A federal court has jurisdiction over several species of cases and controversies, such as those involving a federal constitutional question, a federal statute, or litigants of different states in a dispute totaling over $50,000 (in which case, the court's power to hear is called diversity jurisdiction). Federal courts have an obligation to hear the cases properly brought before them, so abstention is an extraordinary judicial maneuver.

Also known as the Pullman doctrine, the abstention doctrine was first fashioned by the Court in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 61 S. Ct. 643, 85 L. Ed. 971 (1941). At issue in Pullman was a Texas Railroad Commission regulation that prevented the operation of sleeping cars on trains without a Pullman conductor. Before the regulation, Texas trains used only one sleeping car in areas of light passenger traffic. When only one sleeping car was used, the trains had only Pullman porters to watch over the sleepers. When more sleeping cars were used, the trains employed Pullman conductors, who supervised the porters. The regulation eliminated a practice that deprived conductors of wages, but it also effectively decreased the earnings and eliminated the autonomy of porters. This result introduced the issue of discrimination, since, at the time, Pullman conductors were white and porters were black.

The Pullman Company and Texas railroads objected to the regulation, and together they brought suit in federal district court to keep the commission from enforcing the order. Pullman porters joined the Pullman Company and the railroads as complainants, and Pullman conductors joined the commission as defendants. The federal district court granted the request of the complainants, ruling that the commission did not have the authority to make such an order. The defendants appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The complainants argued that the regulation violated constitutional rights, namely the protections provided under the due process and commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution. The porters specifically asserted that the order was discriminatory against "negroes," and thus violated the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution. The commission answered that its authority to order such a regulation was created by Texas law. Vernon's Texas Revised Civil Statutes Annotated, article 6445, provided in part that the commission was empowered to prevent "unjust discrimination … and to prevent any and all other abuses" in the Texas railroad industry.

The Supreme Court acknowledged the sensitive nature of the porters' allegation of discrimination, but declared that the fate of the offending law should be decided first by the state courts. The Court then faced the question of whether a state resolution was possible.

The Supreme Court noted that a federal district court in the Fifth Circuit had ruled against the commission, but called the decision nothing more than a "forecast." According to the Court, the Texas state courts were more capable of interpreting Texas laws and determining how they should be applied. Federal courts were simply not competent to define the concept of discrimination and its prevention as understood in Texas.

Furthermore, deciding Texas law in a federal court was of little use when the ruling could later be displaced by the decision of a state court. The Court conceded that federal constitutional claims against state laws or regulations may be appealed to federal courts, but it emphasized the public interest in avoiding "needless friction with state policies." This meant that when a state had the means to resolve a constitutional issue, the first word on the meaning and constitutionality of the challenged law should be left to the state.

Texas law provided for judicial review of administrative orders in state court, so the complainants could have filed suit there. Likewise, the defendants could have brought suit in state court to enforce the order in the event of a railroad strike. Because these avenues existed and had not been traveled, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower federal court and ordered the case held in the federal court pending the outcome of state proceedings.

The abstention doctrine has expanded since the Pullman case. The Supreme Court has identified three distinct types of cases from which a federal court should abstain: (1) If the meaning of a state law or regulation is claimed to be unconstitutional, and the meaning of the statute or regulation can be discovered in the state's court system, abstention is appropriate. (2) Abstention is also appropriate when a federal suit seeks to delay or upset an ongoing state proceeding, such as a criminal prosecution or the collection of state taxes. (3) Finally, a federal court should yield to state courts when a case presents a difficult policy question of vital importance to the state. This last justification for abstention breeds the most creative arguments.

One difficult issue of vital importance to states is domestic relations. divorce, alimony, and child custody cases involve legitimate local policies concerning marriage and religion. Until the 1990s, domestic relations abstention has been invoked by federal courts in virtually any case concerning family members. In Anken-brandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 112 S. Ct. 2206, 119 L. Ed. 2d 468 (1992), the Supreme Court put a stop to this practice.

On September 26, 1989, Carol Ankenbrandt, on behalf of her daughters, sued Jon Richards and Debra Kesler in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Ankenbrandt, a Missouri citizen, had been married to Richards, a Louisiana citizen. After the couple divorced, Richards became romantically involved with Kesler. In her suit, Ankenbrandt claimed that Richards and Kesler had sexually and physically abused Ankenbrandt's daughters. Ankenbrandt filed the suit in federal court under diversity jurisdiction; she was able to do so because she did not live in the defendants' home state and she was suing for over $50,000.

The federal court decided not to hear the merits of Ankenbrandt's case. The district court granted the defendants' earliest motion to dismiss, ruling that the case belonged in state court under the domestic relations exception to federal jurisdiction based on diversity. As an alternative to that holding, the court declared that its refusal to hear the case was also justified by the abstention doctrine. The court of appeals affirmed these holdings without a published opinion.

On appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the decision. The Court traced the origins of the domestic relations exception to federal diversity jurisdiction and concluded that the exception was valid. Nevertheless, the exception contemplated federal abstention only from cases such as divorce, alimony, and child custody. Ankenbrandt's action was a tort action, an action for monetary recovery based on the accusations of one individual against another. Ankenbrandt's previous marriage to Richards did not provide a permissible reason for the federal court to invoke the domestic relations exception.

The federal district court's alternative holding of abstention was equally erroneous. The district court had cited Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 (1971), as support for its abstention. However, the Younger decision simply held that a federal court could not interfere with a pending state criminal prosecution. Here, no state proceeding was pending, and the defense had not alleged that any important state interest existed, so reliance on that particular reason for abstention was misplaced.

Although the argument had not been raised by Richards or Kesler, the Supreme Court anticipated another reason for abstention, to fore-close the argument in future cases. The federal district court may have sought to abstain from the Ankenbrandt case because the suit seemed to present a difficult state policy question of vital importance to the public. The case seemed to involve a determination of the family status of the litigants, an area of state interest that could bring the case within the domestic relations exception. This basis for abstention was not supportable, though, because the familial status of the parties had already been determined in a divorce proceeding and a parental rights proceeding.

The Supreme Court further warned that the family status of the litigants had no bearing on the underlying case. In a civil action for monetary damages, where sexual and physical abuse is alleged, a federal court could not refuse to hear the case because the litigants had at one time been related. Ultimately, neither the domestic relations exception nor its close relative the abstention doctrine would deprive Ankenbrandt of the right to file her complaint in federal court.

Despite its expansion since Pullman, federal court abstention is very rare. A federal court may refuse to hear a case over which it has jurisdiction only in unusual circumstances. When a case poses federal constitutional questions, a federal court may abstain only when the challenged state law or regulation is unclear. In addition, the methods for determining the meaning of the law or regulation must exist in the state's court system, and these methods must not have been used. Then and only then may a federal court refrain from hearing a constitutional question. The boundaries of the abstention doctrine are continually tested and stretched, but in 1992 the Supreme Court sent notice through the Ankenbrandt case to the federal courts that its use is limited.


Constitutional Law; Courts; Federal Courts.

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