Legal Memorandum: Abstention Doctrine

Issue: Under federal law, how does the abstention doctrine affect a court’s ability to hear a case that would fall within its federal question jurisdiction, such as a copyright matter?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Aabstention; Federal question jurisdiction
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 491 U.S. 350; 517 U.S. 706; 275 F.3d 1253; 360 U.S. 185
Cited Statutes: 28 U.S.C. § 1331; 28 U.S.C. § 2283
Date: 10/01/2014

Challenges based on federal due process and First Amendment rights or copyright law all fall within federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.  However, even where jurisdiction is proper, federal courts may decline to hear a case based on the statutory Anti-Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2283, or principles of abstention established in federal case law to protect judicial federalism.  Moreover, because lower federal courts do not have appellate jurisdiction over state courts, they will not hear appeals from unfavorable state-court decisions based on the theory that the state court acted unconstitutionally.  Overall, the more distinctions and separation that can be shown between the federal case and the state case, the better. 

The Supreme Court has repeatedly characterized abstention as an “extraordinary and narrow exception to the duty of a District Court to adjudicate a controversy properly before it.”  County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185, 188 (1959); see also Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706, 713 (1996) (collecting cases); Cecos Int’l v. Jorling, 895 F.2d 66, 70 (2d Cir.1990) (abstention is "the narrow exception, not the rule.”).  The Supreme Court has reiterated this sentiment as late as 2013, in Sprint Comm’ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 134 S. Ct. 584, 588 (2013):

Abstention is not in order simply because a pending state-court proceeding involves the same subject matter. New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350, 373, 109 S.Ct. […]


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