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Can Federal Courts Overrule State Courts?

The legal system in the United States is a complex one - with many areas regulated by both state and federal governments. The same goes for the courts. Article III of the U.S. Constitution gives jurisdiction in certain types of cases only to the federal courts. But can federal courts review decisions by the state courts?

How Courts Resolve Conflicts of Jurisdiction

United States Library of Congress, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation

Federal courts primarily interfere with state courts in three ways: by enjoining proceedings in them, by issuing writs of habeas corpus to set aside convictions obtained in them, and by adjudicating cases removed from them. With regard to all three but particularly with regard to the first, there have been developed certain rules plus a statutory limitation designed to minimize needless conflict.


"[T]he notion of 'comity,'" Justice Black asserted, "is composed of a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. This, perhaps for lack of a better and clearer way to describe it, is referred to by many as 'Our Federalism.'"1

Comity is a self-imposed rule of judicial restraint whereby independent tribunals of concurrent or coordinate jurisdiction act to moderate the stresses of coexistence and to avoid collisions of authority. It is not a rule of law but one of practice, convenience, and expediency,2 which persuades but does not command.


Perhaps the fullest expression of the concept of comity may be found in the abstention doctrine.3 The abstention doctrine instructs federal courts to abstain from exercising jurisdiction if applicable state law, which would be dispositive to the controversy, is unclear and a state court's interpretation of the state law might make resolving a federal constitutional issue unnecessary.Abstention is not proper, however, where the relevant state law is settled,5 or where it is clear that the state statute or action challenged is unconstitutional no matter how the state court construes state law.6 Federal jurisdiction is not ousted by abstention; rather it is postponed.7 The Supreme Court has said that abstention can serve interests of federal-state comity by avoiding a result in 'needless friction with state policies,'8 and can spare the federal courts of unnecessary constitutional adjudication.9

During the 1960s, the Supreme Court disfavored the abstention doctrine, rejecting it in numerous cases, most of which concerned civil rights and civil liberties.10 The Court cited time-consuming delays11 and piecemeal resolution of important questions12 as too-costly consequences of the doctrine. In addition to actions brought under civil rights statutes,13 the Court, for a while, appeared to shelter cases involving First Amendment expression guarantees from the absention doctrine, but this is no longer the rule.14 Younger v. Harris15 and its progeny signaled a trend toward the Court applying the absention doctrine more robustly.

As an alternative to abstention, the Supreme Court has sometimes encouraged or required lower federal courts to use certification procedures where they are available.16 While this process is not grounded in the federal constitution, certification may allow federal courts to avoid relying on the abstention doctrine. Most states have adopted rules that allow federal courts to certify, or refer, unsettled questions of state law to state courts.17 The Court has sometimes required lower federal courts to certify to state courts questions which concern novel issues of state law peculiarly calling for the exercise of judgment by the state courts, and involve construing a state law that is being challenged as unconstitutional.18 The Court has also noted that certification may be appropriate where abstention would lead to undue delay and expense—although such concerns may not be sufficient to require a federal court to employ certification rather than abstention.19

Exhaustion Doctrine

A complainant will ordinarily be required, as a matter of comity, to exhaust all available state legislative and administrative remedies before seeking relief in federal court.20 To do so may make unnecessary federal-court adjudication. The complainant will ordinarily not be required, however, to exhaust his state judicial remedies, inasmuch as it is a litigant's choice to proceed in either state or federal courts when the alternatives exist and a question for judicial adjudication is present.21 But when a litigant is suing for protection of federally guaranteed civil rights, he need not exhaust any kind of state remedy.22


  1. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 44 (1971)Compare Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass'n v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100 (1981)with id. at 119–25 (Justice Brennan concurring, joined by three other Justices).
  2. Mast, Foos & Co. v. Stover Manufacturing Co., 177 U.S. 458, 488 (1900). Recent decisions emphasize comity as the primary reason for restraint in federal court actions tending to interfere with state courts. E.g.O'Shea v. Littleton, 414 U.S. 488, 499–504 (1974)Huffman v. Pursue, Ltd., 420 U.S. 592, 599–603 (1975)Trainor v. Hernandez, 431 U.S. 434, 441 (1977)Moore v. Sims, 442 U.S. 415, 430 (1979). The Court has also cited comity as a reason to restrict access to federal habeas corpusFrancis v. Henderson, 425 U.S. 536, 541 and n.31 (1976)Wainwright v. Sykes, 433 U.S. 72, 83, 88, 90 (1977)Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 128–29 (1982)See also Rosewell v. LaSalle National Bank, 450 U.S. 503 (1981)Fair Assessment in Real Estate Ass'n v. McNary, 454 U.S. 100 (1981) (comity limits federal court interference with state tax systems); Levin v. Commerce Energy, Inc., 560 U.S. ___, No. 09-223, slip op. (2010) (comity has particular force in cases challenging constitutionality of state taxation of commercial activities). And see Missouri v. Jenkins, 495 U.S. 33 (1990).
  3. See above section on Comity.
  4. C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts 13 (4th ed. 1983). The basic doctrine was formulated by Justice Frankfurter for the Court in Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941). Another feature of the doctrine is that a federal court should refrain from exercising jurisdiction in order to avoid needless conflict with a state's administration of its own affairs, Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315 (1943)Alabama Public Service Comm'n v. Southern Ry., 341 U.S. 341 (1951)Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293 (1943)Martin v. Creasy, 360 U.S. 219 (1959)Moses H. Cone Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1 (1983)New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of the City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350 (1989) (carefully reviewing the scope of the doctrine), especially where state law is unsettled. Meredith v. City of Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228 (1943)County of Allegheny v. Frank Mashuda Co., 360 U.S. 185 (1959)Louisiana Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25 (1959)See also Clay v. Sun Insurance Office Ltd., 363 U.S. 207 (1960). Also, although the sole fact that an action is pending in state court will not ordinarily cause a federal court to abstain, there are exceptional circumstances in which it should. Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976)Will v. Calvert Fire Insurance Co., 437 U.S. 655 (1978)Arizona v. San Carlos Apache Tribe, 463 U.S. 545 (1983). But, in Quackenbush v. Allstate Ins. Co., 517 U.S. 706 (1996), an exercise in Burford abstention, the Court held that federal courts have power to dismiss or remand cases based on abstention principles only where relief being sought is equitable or otherwise discretionary but may not do so in common-law actions for damages.
  5. City of Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S.F. Ry., 357 U.S. 77 (1958)Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 249–51 (1967)See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat'l. Union, 442 U.S. 289, 306 (1979) (quoting Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534–35 (1965)).
  6. Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534–35 (1965)Babbitt v. United Farm Workers Nat'l., 442 U.S. 289, 305–12 (1979). Abstention is not proper simply to afford a state court the opportunity to hold that a state law violates the federal Constitution. Wisconsin v. Constantineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971)Zablocki v. Redhail, 434 U.S. 374, 379 n.5 (1978)Douglas v. Seacoast Products, Inc., 431 U.S. 265, 271 n.4 (1977)City of Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451 (1987) (A federal court may not properly ask a state court if it would care in effect to rewrite a statute). But if the statute is clear and there is a reasonable possibility that the state court would find it in violation of a distinct or specialized state constitutional provision, abstention may be proper, Harris County Comm'rs Court v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77 (1975)Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82 (1970), although not if the state and federal constitutional provisions are alike. Examining Bd. v. Flores de Otero, 426 U.S. 572, 598 (1976).
  7. American Trial Lawyers Ass'n v. New Jersey Supreme Court, 409 U.S. 467, 469 (1973)Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959). Dismissal may be necessary if the state court will not accept jurisdiction while the case is pending in federal court. Harris County Comm'rs v. Moore, 420 U.S. 77, 88 n.14 (1975).
  8. La. Power & Light Co. v. City of Thibodaux, 360 U.S. 25, 33 (1959) (quoting R.R. Comm'n of Tex. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 500 (1941)).
  9. Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167, 177 (1959).
  10. McNeese v. Cahokia Bd. of Educ., 373 U.S. 668 (1963)Griffin v. School Board, 377 U.S. 218 (1964)Hostetter v. Idlewild Bon Voyage Liquor Corp., 377 U.S. 324 (1964)Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964)Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678 (1964)Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965)Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965)Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241 (1967)Wisconsin v. Constanineau, 400 U.S. 433 (1971).
  11. England v. Louisiana Bd. of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 426 (1964) (Justice Douglas concurring). See C. Wright, Handbook of the Law of Federal Courts 305 (4th ed. 1983).
  12. Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 378–379 (1964).
  13. Compare Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167 (1959)with McNeese v. Cahokia Bd. of Educ., 373 U.S. 668 (1963).
  14. Compare Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360 (1964)and Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479 (1965)with Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), and Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971)See Babbitt v. United Farm Workers, 442 U.S. 289, 305–312 (1979).
  15. 401 U.S. 37 (1971). There is room to argue whether the Younger line of cases represents the abstention doctrine at all, but the Court continues to refer to it in those terms. E.g.Ankenbrandt v. Richards, 504 U.S. 689, 705 (1992); Sprint Commc'ns, Inc. v. Jacobs, 571 U.S. ___, No. 12-815, slip op. (2013).
  16. E.g., Mckesson v. Doe, No. 19-1108, slip op. at 5 (U.S. Nov. 2, 2020); Bellotti v. Baird, 428 U.S. 132, 151 (1976)Lehman Brothers v. Schein, 416 U.S. 386, 390–91 (1974); Clay v. Sun Insurance Office Ltd., 363 U.S. 207, 212 (1960).
  17. See, e.g.Arizonans for Official English v. Arizona, 520 U.S. 43, 79 (1997) (describing certification and concluding that a federal appeals court erred when it blend[ed] the abstention inquiry with the certification inquiry).
  18. Mckesson, slip op. at 4–5; see also Arizonans for Official English, 520 U.S. at 79.
  19. Houston v. Hill, 482 U.S. 451, 470–71 (1987)Cf., e.g., Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman, No. 15-1391, slip op. at 6–10 (U.S. Mar. 29, 2017) (Sotomayor, J., concurring) (comparing abstention with certification, and concluding that the lower court abused its discretion when it decided not to certify and instead chose a convoluted course by abstaining in part and deciding the question in part).
  20. The rule was formulated in Prentis v. Atlantic Coast Line Co., 211 U.S. 210 (1908), and Bacon v. Rutland R.R., 232 U.S. 134 (1914).
  21. City Bank Farmers' Trust Co. v. Schnader, 291 U.S. 24 (1934)Lane v. Wilson, 307 U.S. 268 (1939)But see Alabama Public Service Comm'n v. Southern Ry., 341 U.S. 341 (1951). Exhaustion of state court remedies is required in habeas corpus cases and usually in suits to restrain state court proceedings.
  22. Patsy v. Florida Board of Regents, 457 U.S. 496 (1982). Where there are pending administrative proceedings that fall within the Younger rule, a litigant must exhaust. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), as explicated in Ohio Civil Rights Comm'n v. Dayton Christian School, Inc., 477 U.S. 619, 627 n.2 (1986). Under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, barring employment discrimination on racial and other specified grounds, the EEOC may not consider a claim until a state agency having jurisdiction over employment discrimination complaints has had at least 60 days to resolve the matter. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e–5(c). See Love v. Pullman Co., 404 U.S. 522 (1972). The Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act contains a specific, limited exhaustion requirement for adult prisoners bringing actions pursuant to § 1983. Patsy, 457 U.S. at 508.



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