Ashwander rules

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The Ashwander rules, articulated by Justice Louis D. Brandeis, are a set of principles used by the United States Supreme Court for avoiding constitutional rulings.

Rules for Judicial Self-Restraint and Avoiding Constitutional Questions[edit]

Justice Louis D. Brandeis, concurring in Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288 (1936), summarized some prudential rules for exercising judicial self-restraint and avoiding ruling on the constitutionality of congressional legislation:

The Court developed, for its own governance in the cases confessedly within its jurisdiction, a series of rules under which it has avoided passing upon a large part of all the constitutional questions pressed upon it for decision. They are:

  1. The Court will not pass upon the constitutionality of legislation in a friendly, non-adversary, proceeding, declining because to decide such questions "is legitimate only in the last resort, earnest and vital controversy between individuals. It never was the thought that, by means of a friendly suit, a party beaten in the legislature could transfer to the courts an inquiry as to the constitutionality of the legislative act."[1]
  2. The Court will not "anticipate a question of constitutional law in advance of the necessity of deciding it." [2] "It is not the habit of the Court to decide questions of a constitutional nature unless absolutely necessary to a decision of the case." [3]
  3. The Court will not "formulate a rule of constitutional law broader than is required by the Precise facts to which it is to be applied." [2]
  4. The Court will not pass upon a constitutional question although properly presented by the record, if there is also present some other ground upon which the case may be disposed of. This rule has found most varied application. Thus, if a case can be decided on either of two grounds, one involving a constitutional question, the other a question of statutory construction or general law, the Court will decide only the latter. Appeals from the highest court of a state challenging its decision of a question under the Federal Constitution are frequently dismissed because the judgment can be sustained on an independent state ground.
  5. The Court will not pass upon the validity of a statute upon complaint of one who fails to show that he is injured by its operation. Among the many applications of this rule, none is more striking than the denial of the right to challenge to one who lacks a personal or property right. (While not mentioned in Ashwander, there are exceptions in the case of a First Amendment challenge where the party may raise the effect of a law on other person's First Amendment rights, the so-called "chilling effect" doctrine.)
  6. The Court will not pass upon the constitutionality of a statute at the instance of one who has availed himself of its benefits.
  7. "When the validity of an act of the Congress is drawn in question, and even if a serious doubt of constitutionality is raised, it is a cardinal principle that this Court will first ascertain whether a construction of the statute is fairly possible by which the question may be avoided." [4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chicago & Grand Trunk Ry. v. Wellman, 143 U.S. 339 (1892)
  2. ^ a b Liverpool, N.Y. & P.S.S. Co. v. Emigration Commissioners, 113 U.S. 33 (1885)
  3. ^ Burton v. United States, 196 U.S. 283 (1905)
  4. ^ Crowell v. Benson, 285 U.S. 22 (1932)