368 U.S. 278 (1961), 72, Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction or Orange County

Docket Nº:No. 72
Citation:368 U.S. 278, 82 S.Ct. 275, 7 L.Ed.2d 285
Party Name:Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction or Orange County
Case Date:December 11, 1961
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 278

368 U.S. 278 (1961)

82 S.Ct. 275, 7 L.Ed.2d 285

Cramp

v.

Board of Public Instruction or Orange County

No. 72

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 11, 1961

Argued October 16, 1961

APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF FLORIDA

Syllabus

A Florida statute requires every employee of the State and its subdivisions to swear in writing that, inter alia, he has never lent his "aid, support, advice, counsel or influence to the Communist Party." It requires immediate discharge of any employee failing to subscribe to such an oath. Appellant, a teacher in a public school of the State, refused to file such an oath and sued in a state court for a judgment declaring the statute unconstitutional and enjoining its enforcement. He alleged, in effect, that he had not done any of the things mentioned in the statute, as he understood it, but that its meaning was so vague as to deprive him of liberty or property without due process of law. The State Supreme Court held the statute constitutional, and denied relief.

Held:

1. Notwithstanding his allegation that he had not done any of the things mentioned in the required oath, appellant was not without standing to attack the statute on the ground that it was so vague as to deprive him of liberty or property without due process of law. Pp. 280-285.

2. The meaning of the required oath is so vague and uncertain that the State cannot, consistently with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, force an employee either to take such an oath, at the risk of subsequent prosecution for perjury or face immediate dismissal from public service. Pp. 285-288.

125 So.2d 554 reversed.

Page 279

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

A Florida statute requires each employee of the State or its subdivisions to execute a written oath in which he must swear that, among other things, he has never lent his "aid, support, advice, counsel or influence to the Communist Party."1 Failure to subscribe to this oath

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results under the law in the employee's immediate discharge.2

After the appellant had been employed for more than nine years as a public school teacher in Orange County, Florida, it was discovered in 1959 that he had never been required to execute this statutory oath.3 When requested to do so, he refused. He then brought an action in the state circuit court asking for a judgment declaring the oath requirement unconstitutional, and for an injunction forbidding the appellee, the Orange County Board of Public Instruction, from requiring him to execute the oath and from discharging him for his failure to do so. The circuit court held the statute valid and denied the prayer for an injunction. The Supreme Court of Florida affirmed, 125 So.2d 554, and this is an appeal from the judgment of affirmance. Having doubt as to the jurisdiction of this Court, we postponed decision of that preliminary question until the hearing of the appeal on the merits. 366 U.S. 934.

I

In his complaint in the state circuit court, Cramp alleged that

he has, does and will support the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Florida; he

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is not a member of the Communist Party; that he has not, does not and will not lend aid, support, advice, counsel or influence to the Communist Party; he does not believe in the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of the State of Florida by force or violence; he is not a member of any organization or party which believes in or teaches directly or indirectly the overthrow of the Government of the United States or of Florida by force or violence.

He further alleged that he

is a loyal American, and does not decline to execute or subscribe to the aforesaid oath for fear of the penalties provided by law for a false oath.

It is these sworn statements in the complaint which raise two related but separate questions as to our jurisdiction of this appeal. First, did the Florida Supreme Court rest its decision at least alternatively, upon the ground that the appellant, because of these statements, lacked standing to attack the statutory oath? If so, we should have to consider the applicability of

the settled rule that where the judgment of a state court rests upon two grounds, one of which is federal and the other nonfederal in character, our jurisdiction fails if the nonfederal ground is independent of the federal ground and adequate to support the judgment.

Fox Film Corp. v. Muller, 296 U.S. 207, 210. Secondly, do these sworn statements of the appellant deprive him of standing to attack the state statute in this Court, irrespective of what the Florida court may have decided?

The Supreme Court of Florida ruled that,

because of the allegations of his own complaint, the appellant teacher has unequivocally demonstrated that he has no standing to assault the subject statute on the grounds that it is a bill of attainder, or an ex post facto law.

125 So.2d at 560. We may assume that this ruling [82 S.Ct. 278] by the state court would operate to foreclose our consideration of this appeal if the appellant had confined his attack upon the

Page 282

statute to the two grounds mentioned. But, in addition to asserting that the Florida statute constitutes an ex post facto law and a bill of attainder, the appellant has from the beginning also claimed that the statute is constitutionally invalid for two further and quite different reasons -- that it impinges upon his constitutionally protected right of free speech and association and that the language of the required oath is so vague and uncertain as to deny him due process of law. As we read the opinion of the Florida Supreme Court, both of these federal constitutional issues were decided upon their merits, without even implicit reliance upon any doctrine of state law.4

Whether the appellant has standing to attack the state statute in this Court is, however, a separate issue to which we must bring our independent judgment. Tileston v. Ullman, 318 U.S. 44; Doremus v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 429. The controlling question is

Page 283

whether the appellant "has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of [the statute's] enforcement. . . ." Commonwealth v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447, 488.

In the absence of the specific allegations in the complaint to which allusion has been made, there can be no doubt that enforcement of the state law would inflict a direct and serious injury upon the appellant. The statute unequivocally requires the appellant to execute the oath or suffer immediate discharge from public employment. See United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 91-92; Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485. The argument is made, however, that the self-exonerating sworn statements in the complaint conclusively show that this appellant could not possibly sustain injury by executing the oath, and that he consequently has undercut his standing to question the constitutional validity of the state law.

Whatever the merits of this argument, it has, we think, no application to [82 S.Ct. 279] the appellant's claim that the statutory oath is unconstitutionally vague. The vices inherent in an unconstitutionally vague statute -- the risk of unfair prosecution and the potential deterrence of constitutionally protected conduct -- have been repeatedly pointed out in our decisions. See Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391; Cline v. Frink Dairy Co., 274 U.S. 445, 465; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 369; Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242, 258-259; Lanzetta v.

Page 284

New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451; Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507. See also Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147, 151. These are dangers to which all who are compelled to execute an unconstitutionally vague and indefinite oath may be exposed. Cf. Thornhill v. Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 96-98.

There is nothing in the allegations of the complaint to indicate that the appellant will not be subjected to these hazards to the same degree as other public employees required to take the oath. The most that can be said of his having subscribed to the allegations in question is that he believes he could truthfully execute the oath, as he understands its language. But the very vice of which he complains is that the language of the oath is so vague and indefinite that others could with reason interpret it differently. He argues, in other words, that he could unconstitutionally be subjected to all the risks of a criminal prosecution despite the sworn allegations as to his past conduct which are contained in the complaint.5 We cannot say that the appellant lacks standing to attack this statutory oath as unconstitutionally vague simply because he now personally believes he could eventually prevail in the event he were prosecuted for perjury. Cf. Staub v. City of Baxley, 355 U.S. 313, 319; Jones v. Opelika, 316 U.S. 584, 602, dissenting opinion adopted per curiam on rehearing, 319 U.S. 103, 104; Smith v. Cahoon, 283 U.S. 553, 562.

We conclude that the appellant is not without standing to attack the Florida statute upon the ground that it is

Page 285

so vague as to deprive him of liberty or property without due process of law, and we turn, therefore, to the merits of that claim.

II

The Florida Supreme Court first considered the provisions of this legislative oath in State v. Diez, 97 So.2d 105, a case involving the validity of an indictment for perjury. There, the court upheld the constitutionality of the legislation only upon finding it

. . . inherent in the law that, when one takes the oath that he has not lent aid, advice, counsel and the...

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