Abstention in the Time of Ferguson
76 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2018 Last revised: 7 Aug 2018
Date Written: June 10, 2018
Of the roughly 450,000 Americans who are in local jails awaiting trial, many are there because they are poor. When people with economic resources are arrested, they can sometimes pay bail or fines and go on with their lives. Those who cannot afford to pay meet a different fate. Some remain in jail for days or weeks while waiting to see a judge. Some remain there for months because courts did not take their indigence into account when setting or reviewing bail. If they plead guilty in order to leave jail, this often triggers a new set of fines and fees that they cannot afford to pay. Failure to pay results in a new arrest. The cycle starts anew.
This Article is about federal lawsuits challenging various state and local regimes that criminalize poverty and a threshold barrier that has blocked some such federal suits. Under Younger v. Harris — and the doctrine of Younger abstention — federal courts may not disrupt a state criminal proceeding by means of an injunction or declaratory judgment. Federal courts’ reluctance to resolve such cases is predicated on federalism interests. Traditionally, however, federal courts have nonetheless entertained suits to stop or prevent irreparable harm, especially where an underlying state process provides an inadequate means to raise federal constitutional claims. When a state is engaging in a structural or systemic constitutional violation, federalism interests diminish and the risk of irreparable harm is grave.
This Article argues for an exception to Younger abstention when litigants challenge structural or systemic constitutional violations. “Structural” means a flaw that infects a judicial process’s basic framework in incalculable ways, such as denial of counsel at a critical stage or a judge’s financial interest in the outcome. “Systemic” means a flaw that routinely impacts litigants by way of a policy, pattern or practice, or other class-wide common set of violations. Because the United States Supreme Court has already made clear that “inadequate” state proceedings should not stand in the way of federal intervention, this exception can be adopted and implemented without major changes to existing Supreme Court precedent. No one should be in jail or punished because she is poor. Federal courts should ensure that this substantive right has practical effect.
Keywords: Federal courts, criminalization of poverty, Section 1983, bail, constitutional law, constitutional rights, abstention, federalism, injunctions, irreparable harm, civil rights, jurisdiction
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