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The mandate contained in Article III of the Constitution that requires an appellate court to consider whether a case has matured into a controversy worthy of adjudication before it can hear the case.
An actual, current controversy worthy of adjudication must exist before a federal court may hear a case. The court determines if a controversy between parties with adverse legal interests is of sufficient immediacy and reality to warrant judicial intervention (Lake Carriers' Ass'n v. MacMullan, 406 U.S. 498, 92 S. Ct. 1749, 32 L. Ed. 2d 257 ).
The rationale behind the ripeness limitation is to prevent the courts from entering a controversy before it has solidified or before other available remedies have been exhausted. In disputes involving regulations or decisions promulgated by administrative agencies, a controversy is not considered ripe until the agency's decision has been formalized and the challenging parties have felt its effects. Similarly, if a state court remedy is available, a controversy is not ripe for federal court review until all state court remedies have been exhausted.
The courts generally apply a two-part test to determine if a controversy is ripe for judicial intervention. The first criterion is whether the controversy is fit for judicial decision, that is, whether it presents a Question of Law rather than a Question of Fact. Secondly, the courts determine the impact on the parties of withholding judicial consideration. In Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136, 87 S. Ct. 1507, 18 L. Ed. 2d 681 (1967), the Supreme Court examined whether a regulation that required drug manufacturers to use labels showing both the generic and the proprietary drug names was ripe for review before it was actually enforced. The Court held that the controversy was ripe because the regulation had an immediate and expensive impact on the plaintiffs' day-to-day operations and the plaintiffs risked a substantial sanction if they did not comply with the regulation.
Ripeness is a major consideration when parties seek injunctive or declarative relief before a statute or regulation has been applied. Courts are reluctant to enter an abstract disagreement over administrative policies (Ruckelshaus v. Monsanto, 467 U.S. 986, 104 S. Ct. 2862, 81 L. Ed. 2d 815 ). However, in some cases, the courts will hear a request for an Injunction or Declaratory Judgment if the question presented is entirely or substantially legal and if postponing a decision until after a statute or regulation is applied would work a substantial hardship on the challenging party (Pacific Gas and Electric Co. v. State Energy Resources Conservation & Development Commission, 461 U.S. 190, 103 S. Ct. 1713, 75 L. Ed. 2d 752 ).
American Law Institute–American Bar Association (ALI ABA). 1996. The Ripeness Mess: Part I—Getting into State Court, by Michael M. Berger. Course of study, October 17, 1996. SB14 ALI-ABA 155.
——. 1993. The "Ripeness" Mess in the Federal Courts, by Michael M. Berger. Course of Study, September 30, 1993. C872 ALI-ABA 41.