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Article Title

Abstaining Equitably

Abstract

The doctrine of Younger abstention—which counsels federal courts not to interrupt ongoing state criminal proceedings—balances dueling considerations. On the one hand, the doctrine preserves federal courts’ ability to exercise Congressionally conferred, properly invoked jurisdiction to prevent irreparable violations of the federal constitution. On the other, the doctrine provides space for autonomous state courts to carry out their traditional role in the realm of criminal justice. This Essay identifies four central features of the Younger doctrine that maintain this balance. By protecting these features, federal courts can ensure that Younger remains a doctrine of equitable restraint, instead of inequitable abdication.

First, the Supreme Court has narrowly construed what it means to interfere with an ongoing proceeding. Not all federal legal proceedings that run parallel to a criminal proceeding should be classified as “interference.” Second, the Court does not stay its hand when an underlying proceeding fails to provide adequate opportunity to raise federal claims. Third, the Court has constructed a set of related exceptions to Younger to ensure that federal courts do not abdicate their role in abating irreparable harm. Fourth, the Court has rejected a general exhaustion requirement in Section 1983 suit, except when a trial and appeal form the same unitary process. Put differently, a federal plaintiff need not avail oneself of every available state proceeding. One has a choice of a federal or state forum. Preserving this choice is crucial to ensuring that restraint does not morph into total abdication.

There is a pressing need to reaffirm these four tenets in light of recent lower court developments that have the potential to undermine the Supreme Court’s careful balance.

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