The abstention doctrine (or doctrines), is a doctrine of federalism based on the recognition that, "[s]ince the beginning of this country's history Congress has, subject to few exceptions, manifested a desire to permit state courts to try state cases free from interference by federal courts." Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 43 (1971).

I. Younger Abstention

There are two basic types of abstention. The first, based on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Younger v. Harris, can be termed a "nonintervention doctrine." The basic principle is that federal courts may not enjoin pending state court criminal proceedings except in extraordinary circumstances. In ordinary cases, federal courts must dismiss a state criminal defendant's challenge to the constitutionality of the law he is charged with violating, even if the procedural requirements for filing the suit are otherwise met. The court based this principle on traditional doctrines of equity, which prevent courts from granting equitable relief (e.g. an injunction) if the person seeking the relief has an adequate remedy at law, and will not suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is denied. Accordingly, Younger abstention requires federal courts refrain from intervening in state criminal proceedings if the state criminal defendant is able to raise the unconstitutionality of the statute he is charged with violating as a defence in the state proceedings.

As currently understood, Younger abstention will apply if (1) state proceedings are pending, (2) " important state interests" are implicated, and (3) the plaintiff1 has an adequate opportunity to litigate his federal claims in the state proceedings. E.g. H.C. ex rel Gordon v. Koppel, 203 F.3d 610, 613 (9th Cir. 2000).

There are certain exceptions to the Younger abstention doctrine. True to the equitable roots of the doctrine, it will not apply if the threat of irreparable injury to the plaintiff is "both great and immediate" and "cannot be eliminated by his defense against a single criminal prosecution." Younger, 401 U.S., at 44.

While it was first applied to criminal cases, the Supreme Court extended the application of the Younger doctrine to include civil nuisance actions in Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592 (1975). The Court in Huffman extended the doctrine to include state "quasi-criminal" proceedings, which are "both in aid of and closely related to criminal statutes." The Court later further extended the doctrine to apply to purely civil proceedings in which the State was a party. Under the Court's holding in Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434 (1977), "the principles of Younger and Huffman are broad enough to apply to interference by a federal court with an ongoing civil enforcement action such as this, brought by the State in its sovereign capacity." The flipside of Hernandez is that federal courts do not have to abstain if the state is not acting in a sovereign capacity seeking to enforce a state programme, unless there is a substantial state interest at stake.

The Supreme Court has extended Younger abstention further still, to include civil cases in which the State is not a party, but important state interests are a stake. For example, in Juidice v. Vail, 430 U.S. 327 (1970), the Court held that the integrity of the State's contempt procedures was a sufficiently substantial interest to prevent federal interference. Some state administrative proceedings, such as attorney disciplinary proceedings, have also been held subject to Younger abstention. Middlesex County Ethics Comm. v. Garden State Bar Ass'n, 457 U.S. 423 (1982). While the Court held Hawaii Housing Authority v. Midkiff, 467 U.S. 229 (1984) that Younger did not apply to state administrative proceedings expressly declared by state law not to be connected with the state judicial system, it apparently reversed course two years later in Ohio Civil Rights Comm'n v. Dayton Christian School, 477 U.S. 619 (1986), in which it held that abstention is required in administrative proceedings unconnected with the state judicial system if "important state interests are vindicated, so long as in the course of those proceedings the federal plaintiff would have had a full and fair opportunity to litigate his constitutional claim," thus applying to state administrative proceedings to about the same extent as to state judicial proceedings2.

II. Pullman Abstention

An older doctrine of abstention comes from the Supreme Court's decision in Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). While Younger may be termed a doctrine of nonintervention, Pullman is more of a doctrine of suspension. The basic rule of Pullman abstention is that federal proceedings must be held in abeyance during the pendency of state proceedings that may clarify ambiguous state statutes, thus rendering a federal constitutional ruling unnecessary.3

While Younger focuses on the state interests at stake in the state proceedings, the inquiry in Pullman is (1) whether the meaning of a state law affecting a significant social policy is substantially ambiguous, (2) whether clarification in state court would obviate the need for a federal court to determine the state statute's constitutionality, and (3) whether erroneous construction by the federal courts would disrupt important state policies.

In deciding whether to abstain under Pullman, another important consideration is whether clarification in the state courts will have any effect at all. If, for example, there is no way in which a state court could construe a state statute in order to render it constitutional, Pullman abstention would serve no purpose.

Another important difference between Younger and Pullman abstention is that, while Younger abstention is mandatory, and must be applied if the requirements are fulfilled, Pullman abstention is discretionary, and a court has discretion not to apply it even if the requirements are all met.

1 To avoid confusion, "plaintiff" will always refer to the plaintiff in federal court who seeks to enjoin state proceedings.
2 Exception: Younger will not apply if a federal administrative proceeding that would have preclusive effect on the state administrative proceeding before the state proceeding was commenced.
3 In Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43 (1997), the Supreme Court raised some question about the continuing vitality of Pullman, holding that certification of state law questions - submitting them to the state supreme court for resolution - was the preferred route.

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