326 U.S. 120 (1945), 593, Radio Station WOW, Inc. v. Johnson

Docket Nº:No. 593
Citation:326 U.S. 120, 65 S.Ct. 1475, 89 L.Ed. 569
Party Name:Radio Station WOW, Inc. v. Johnson
Case Date:June 18, 1945
Court:United States Supreme Court

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326 U.S. 120 (1945)

65 S.Ct. 1475, 89 L.Ed. 569

Radio Station WOW, Inc.



No. 593

United States Supreme Court

June 18, 1945

Argued March 1, 1945



1. A state court decree otherwise "final" for purposes of review by this Court is nonetheless so because it orders also an accounting of profits, where such accounting cannot give rise to a federal question. Judicial Code, § 237. P. 127.

2. This Court will not review a state court decision resting on an adequate and independent nonfederal ground, even though the state court may also have summoned to its support an erroneous view of federal law. P. 129.

3. In a decree directing a transfer of the facilities of a federally licensed radio station, the state court exceeded its power in ordering the parties "to do all things necessary" to secure a transfer of the license, since this involved restrictions upon the licensing system which Congress has established. Communications Act, § 307(a). P. 130.

4. Although the State has not been deprived by federal legislation of the practical power to terminate a broadcasting service by a proper adjudication separating the physical property from the license, that power will be amply respected, in the instant case, if it is qualified merely to the extent of requiring the state court to withhold execution of that portion of the decree requiring retransfer of the physical properties until steps are ordered to be taken, with all deliberate speed, to enable the Communications Commission to deal with new applications in connection with the station. P. 132.

5. The question of fraud adjudicated by the state court will no longer be open insofar as it bears upon the reliability as licensee of any of the parties. P. 132.

144 Neb. 406, 14 N.W.2d 666, remanded.

Certiorari, 323 U.S. 705, to review the reversal of a decree dismissing the complaint in a suit to set aside a lease and an assignment of a license of a radio station.

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FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the relation of the Federal Communications Act, 48 Stat. 1064, 47 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. to the power of a State to adjudicate [65 S.Ct. 1477] conflicting claims to the property used by a licensed radio station. At the outset, however, our right to review the decision below is seriously challenged.

The facts relevant to the jurisdictional problem, as well as to the main issues, are these, summarized as briefly as accuracy permits. Petitioner, Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society, a fraternal benefit association of Nebraska, owns radio station WOW. The Society leased this station for fifteen years to petitioner, Radio Station WOW, Inc., a Nebraska corporation formed to operate the station as lessee. After the Society and the lessee had jointly applied to the Federal Communications Commission for consent to transfer the station license, Johnson, the respondent, a member of the Society, filed this suit to have the lease and the assignment of the license set aside for fraud. While this suit was pending, the Federal Communications Commission consented to assignment of the license, and the Society transferred both the station properties and the license to the lessee. Thereafter, the Society answered that

the Federal Communications Commission . . . has, and concedes that it has, no jurisdiction over the subject matter of plaintiff's action except jurisdiction to determine the transfer of the license to operate said radio station, which jurisdiction, after full and complete showing and notwithstanding objections filed

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thereto, was exercised in the approval of the transfer of said license to the defendant Radio Station WOW, Inc., and further order to the Society to execute and perform the provisions of said lease by virtue of which the possession of said lease property has now been delivered to the lessee, all as more particularly herein found.

Respondent's reply admitted

that the Federal Communications Commission has, and concedes that it has, no jurisdiction over the subject matter of plaintiff's action except jurisdiction to determine the transfer of the license to operate said radio station.

The trial court found no fraud, and dismissed the suit.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska, three Judges dissenting, reversed and entered judgment for respondent, directing that the lease and license be set aside and that the original position of the parties be restored as nearly as possible. 144 Neb. 406, 13 N.W.2d 556. The judgment further ordered that an accounting be had of the operation of the station by the lessee since it came into its possession, and that the income, less operating expenses, be returned to the Society.1 On motions for rehearing, the

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petitioners asserted that only the Federal Communications Commission and the federal courts had jurisdiction over the subject matter, not the Nebraska courts. These motions were denied in an opinion in which the Nebraska Supreme Court stated,

We conclude at the outset that the power to license a radio station, or to transfer, assign, or annul such a license, is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. . . . The effect of our former opinion was to vacate the lease of the radio station and to order a return of the property to its former status, the question of the federal license being a question solely for the Federal Communications Commission. Our former opinion should be so construed.

The claim that the Nebraska courts had no jurisdiction over the subject matter [65 S.Ct. 1478] of the action was thus dealt with:

The fact that the property involved was used in a licensed business was an incident to the suit only. The answer of the defendants, heretofore quoted, squarely contradicts the position they now endeavor to assume. Their position is unsound on its merits, and, in addition thereto, it was eliminated from the case by the pleadings they filed in their own behalf.

144 Neb. 432, 14 N.W.2d 666, 668. Because of the importance of the contention that the State court's decision had invaded the domain of the Federal Communications Commission, we granted certiorari. In the order allowing certiorari, we directed attention to the questions whether the judgment is a final one and whether the federal questions raised by the petition for certiorari are properly presented by the record. 323 U.S. 705.

Since its establishment, it has been a marked characteristic of the federal judicial system not to permit an appeal until a litigation has been concluded in the court of first instance. See Heike v. United States, 217 U.S.

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423; Cobbledick v. United States, 309 U.S. 323; Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229. This requirement has the support of considerations generally applicable to good judicial administration. It avoids the mischief of economic waste and of delayed justice. Only in very few situations where intermediate rulings may carry serious public consequences has there been a departure from this requirement of finality for federal appellate jurisdiction. This prerequisite to review derives added force when the jurisdiction of this Court is invoked to upset the decision of a State court. Here, we are in the realm of potential conflict between the courts of two different governments. And so, ever since 1789, Congress has granted this Court the power to intervene in State litigation only after "the highest court of a State in which a decision in the suit could be had" has rendered a "final judgment or decree." Section 237(a) of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 344(a). This requirement is not one of those technicalities to be...

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