What I'm trying to figure out in Kowalski is the relevance of the Younger v. Harris decision to the court's finding that the attorneys didn't have standing. Justice Ginsburg points out rightly in her dissent that "[w]hether a federal court should abstain under Younger is . . . distinct from whether a party has standing to sue." In the absence of a pending state action involving the attorneys, Younger should clearly be a separate analysis.
Publius is right, according to Wright. Under the abstention doctrines "a federal court may decline to proceed though it has jurisdiction under the Constitution and the statutes." Wright & Kane, Federal Courts at 325 (6th ed.). Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1975) holds that a federal court must not interfere with pending state court proceedings. In Younger the Court refused to enjoin a pending state court prosecution even though Harris meet all of the justiciability requirements. The Court wrote that "Our Federalism" requires federal courts to recognize that state courts will vindicate federal constitutional rights as as federal courts. Id. at 750. Thus, for Younger to apply, the Court must have jurisdiction over the case, and there must be pending state court proceedings.
In Kowalski the Court held "that the attorneys do not have third-party standing to assert the rights of Michigan indigent defendants denied appellate counsel." Kowalski at *8. Since the Court did not have jurisdiction over the case, it follows that Younger absention would not apply.
Why then did the Court reach the Younger issue?
UPDATE: I think I figured it out. The Court wrote that "[a]n unwillingness
to allow the Younger principle to be thus circumvented
is an additional reason to deny the attorneys third-party standing." Id. Thus, the Court was not abstaning from hearing the case. Rather, Younger was a reason to deny third-party standing. But the Court's language could have implications for civil rights litigants.
Since the indigent defendants could have raised their claim in criminal court, but did not, then they can not later file a Section 1983 action in federal court. This seems to impose a new exhausation rule in section 1983 actions. That is, if a criminal defendant is denied his constitutional rights in a state criminal proceeding, he may not file a Section 1983 action unless he litigated the denial of that right during the state case. (We have to assume that the Heck v. Humphrey bar does not apply).