What Is a Declaratory Judgment?

Written by dave hendrickson
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What Is a Declaratory Judgment?
A declaratory judgment is one of several types of official court rulings. (gavel image by Cora Reed from Fotolia.com)

The legal term "judgment" encompasses any official decision made by a judge. A judge enters a consent judgment when both sides in a trial agree on the outcome. A default judgment declares the plaintiff -- the person who filed the lawsuit -- to be the winner because the defendant did not appear or reply. A judge issues a summary judgment when she determines she can decide the matter without a trial. Courts consider declaratory judgments "preventive justice" because they can help people or institutions avoid violating laws or breaching contracts.

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A declaratory judgment is a binding court ruling that spells out each party's rights and responsibilities in the matter the judge is reviewing. The court issues this judgment before either party has taken any action and before either side can declare damages. Because no damages have yet occurred, a declaratory judgment does not order any party to take any action or to pay any money.

How It Is Used

According to Cornell University Law School's Legal Information Institute, courts are reluctant to hear requests for declaratory judgments because the facts are clearer when there has already been a measurable loss.

Nevertheless, people or institutions facing the threat of a lawsuit can request declaratory judgments. They can attempt to have a court establish their liability or nonliability before someone sues them.

Common reasons for seeking a declaratory judgment are to resolve disputes over contracts, wills and leases. Asking a court to issue a declaratory judgment is also a way for legal advocates to try to remedy ongoing violations of statutory or constitutional law without having to resort to a class action lawsuit, which can be extremely expensive and time-consuming. In addition, although a declaratory judgment does not order either party to do anything, it is binding on both parties. Other than appealing the judgment itself, neither party can seek to get around a declaratory judgment by seeking some other court ruling.

What Is a Declaratory Judgment?
Default judgments can clear up confusion over the terms of a contract. (firma contract 20309 image by pablo from Fotolia.com)


Congress enacted the Declaratory Judgment Act -- Title 28 of the U.S. Code -- in 1934. The federal act governs declaratory judgments in federal courts and as they pertain to federal law. Earlier, in 1922, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws passed its Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act, which 41 states subsequently adopted. The NCCUSL is a non-profit organisation that includes state commissions on uniform laws from each state, the District of Columbia, the commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The conference writes drafts of laws that states are free to adopt so that similar laws are in effect across the country. Most of the states that did not adopt the NCCUSL's proposed legislation have their own declaratory judgment laws.

What Is a Declaratory Judgment?
Congress approved the Declaratory Judgment Act after many states approved similar laws of their own. (state capitol - frankfort, kentucky image by Wendy Hampe from Fotolia.com)

Roe v. Wade

Easily the most famous court case involving a declaratory judgment was Roe v. Wade. A judge may only grant a declaratory judgment in "justiciable controversies" -- specific legal disputes that courts have jurisdiction over. A party cannot seek a declaratory judgment in purely hypothetical situations. In Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, among other things, that Roe had standing to request a declaratory judgment because she was single, pregnant and seeking an abortion. Had she gone ahead with the abortion, she and her doctor would have been violating Texas law. In the same decision, however, the Supreme Court turned back a childless, married couple referred to as "the Does," who also challenged the Texas law on the grounds that they might someday need to seek an abortion, because their situation was entirely hypothetical.

What Is a Declaratory Judgment?
The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade rested in part on the merits of a declaratory judgment. (US Supreme Court image by dwight9592 from Fotolia.com)

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