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What Is a Declaratory Judgment?

Updated April 17, 2017

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.

Definition

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.

History

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.

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.

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About the Author

Dave Hendrickson has been writing and editing professionally since 1980. He has received awards from the Milwaukee Press Club, Virginia Press Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. Hendrickson holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Wisconsin and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University.