Abstention Doctrine Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Abstention Doctrine, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Abstention Doctrine?

n. an abstention doctrine refers to one of the many doctrines which can be used by US Federal Courts to refuse to hear a case, when hearing the case would potentially intrude upon the powers of the state courts.

History and Meaning of Abstention Doctrine

The abstention doctrine is a legal principle that permits a federal court to abstain from exercising its jurisdiction in certain cases that involve unresolved questions of state law. The doctrine reflects a policy of deference to state courts on issues of state law and comity between state and federal judicial systems. The idea is that state courts should have the opportunity to decide questions of state law, without federal intervention, whenever possible.

The abstention doctrine has its roots in the 19th century, when the Supreme Court of the United States recognized that federal courts could decline to hear cases that raised novel and complex issues of state law. Over time, the doctrine has evolved to encompass several specific abstention principles, including the Burford abstention, Pullman abstention, and Younger abstention.

Examples of Abstention Doctrine

  1. In Burford v. Sun Oil Co., the Supreme Court held that abstention was appropriate in a case involving the Texas Railroad Commission's administrative regulation of oil and gas exploration, which required specialized knowledge of the local regulatory scheme.

  2. In Railroad Comm'n of Tex. v. Pullman Co., the Supreme Court recognized a doctrine of abstention that permits a federal court to abstain from exercising its jurisdiction when the case involves a sensitive issue of state law that could be clarified by a state court interpretation.

  3. In Younger v. Harris, the Supreme Court held that federal courts should abstain from enjoining pending state criminal proceedings, absent extraordinary circumstances, in order to avoid federal interference with state criminal justice systems.

Legal Terms Similar to Abstention Doctrine

  1. Comity - A principle of judicial deference that involves reciprocal respect for judicial decisions by courts of different jurisdictions.

  2. Preemption - A legal doctrine that concerns the relationship between federal and state law, where federal law may preempt state law in certain circumstances.

  3. Ripeness - A requirement that a case or controversy must be sufficiently mature and concrete to warrant judicial intervention.