Legal Remedies

Declaratory Judgments

Declaratory judgments are provided for by both federal and state law.  28 U.S.C. §§2201-02, Calif.Code.Civ.Proc. § 1060-1062.5 (and see also the Uniform Declaratory Judgment Act).  Declaratory judgments permit parties to a controversy to determine rights, duties, obligations or status.

Case or Controversy

The United States Constitution (Article III, Section 2) limits the exercise of the judicial power to 'cases' and 'controversies.'  The Declaratory Judgment Act in its limitation to 'cases of actual controversy,' refers to the constitutional provision and is operative only in respect to controversies which are such in the constitutional sense.  A justiciable controversy is thus distinguished from a difference or dispute of a hypothetical or abstract character; from one that is academic or moot. The controversy must be definite and concrete, touching the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests. It must be a real and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree of a conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts. Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Haworth, 300 U.S. 227, 57 S.Ct. 461, 81 L.Ed. 617 (1937).  For adjudication of constitutional issues 'concrete legal issues, presented in actual cases, not abstractions' are requisite.  The power of courts to pass upon the constitutionality of acts of Congress arises only when the interests of litigants require the use of the judicial authority for their protection against actual interference. A hypothetical threat is not enough.  United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 67 S.Ct. 556, 91 L.Ed. 754 (1947).


The operation of the Declaratory Judgment Act is procedural only.  Relief under the Act is available only if the requisites of jurisdiction, in the sense of a federal right or diversity, provide foundation for resort to the federal courts. The Declaratory Judgment Act allowed relief to be given by way of recognizing the plaintiff's right even though no immediate enforcement of it was asked. But the requirements of jurisdiction - the limited subject matters which alone Congress had authorized the District Courts to adjudicate - were not impliedly repealed or modified.  Skelly Oil Co.  v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 70 S.Ct. 876, 94 L.Ed. 1194 (1950).

Standards of Review

A federal district court should, in the exercise of discretion, decline to exercise diversity jurisdiction over a declaratory judgment action raising issues of state law when those same issues are being presented contemporaneously to state courts.  Provident Tradesmens Bank & Trust  Co.,  v. Patterson, 390 U.S. 102, 88 S.Ct. 733, 19 L.Ed. 2d 936 (1968).

Although Rule 57 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure permits declaratory relief although another adequate remedy exists, it should not be granted where a special statutory proceeding has been provided.  In cases where a state criminal prosecution was begun prior to the federal suit, the same equitable principles relevant to the propriety of an injunction must be taken into consideration by federal district courts in determining whether to issue a declaratory judgment, and that where an injunction would be impermissible under these principles, declaratory relief should be denied as well.  Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U.S. 294, 85 S.Ct. 377, 13 L.Ed.2d 290 (1964).

Federal district courts possess discretion in determining whether and when to entertain an action under the Declaratory Judgment Act, even when the suit otherwise satisfies subject matter jurisdictional prerequisites.  District courts have substantial latitude in deciding whether to stay or to dismiss a declaratory judgment suit in light of pending state proceedings (and need not point to "exceptional circumstances" to justify their actions).  The Declaratory Judgment Act is  "an enabling Act, which confers a discretion on the courts rather than an absolute right upon the litigant."  Wilton v. Seven Falls Co. 515 U.S. 277, 115 S.Ct. 2137, 132 L.Ed.2d 214 (1995).  The Declaratory Judgment Act states only that a court "may declare the rights and other legal relations of any interested party seeking such declaration. Where it is uncertain that declaratory relief will benefit the party alleging injury, the court will normally refrain from exercising its equitable powers.

Print This Page Email Link to This Page © Republish or License This

© 2015 by and Craig A. Smith