Legal Memorandum: Federal Abstention Doctrines

Issue: Under federal law, what are the currently-recognized federal abstention doctrines?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure
Keywords: Abstention doctrines; Pullman, Burford, Thiboaux, Colorado River, Younger; Rooker-Feldman
Jurisdiction: Federal
Cited Cases: 424 U.S. 800; 360 U.S. 25; 312 U.S. 496; 481 U.S. 1; 319 U.S. 315; 375 U.S. 411; 401 U.S. 37; 275 F.3d 1253; 420 U.S. 592
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 10/01/2014

There are at least five judicial federalism abstention doctrines, Pullman, Burford, Thiboaux, Colorado River, and Younger as well as Rooker-Feldman, a related preclusion doctrine.  Each has its own significant line of cases which apply and refine it.  Each will be briefly discussed below. 

1.                  Pullman Abstention


To avoid unnecessary federal constitutional rulings, a federal court will apply the Pullman doctrine and abstain from hearing a case where the case presents both state grounds and federal constitutional grounds for relief; the state ground is capable of resolving the controversy; and proper resolution of the state ground is uncertain.  Railroad Comm’n of Texas v. Pullman, 312 U.S. 496 (1941).  In such a case the court will either present both issues to the state court or utilize “England reservation,” where it will stay federal proceedings while parties file a declaratory judgment in state court; if the state decision is not dispositive, the federal court will then hear the case.  England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Med. Examiners, 375 U.S. 411 (1964).

2.         Burford Abstention


Burford abstention applies to cases involving complex state law issues the “resolution of which would be ‘disruptive of state efforts to establish a coherent policy with respect to a matter of substantial public concern.'”  Burford v Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943).  Courts applying Burford abstention will either dismiss and remand to state court or stay the federal […]

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