377 U.S. 360 (1964), 220, Baggett v. Bullitt

Docket Nº:No. 220
Citation:377 U.S. 360, 84 S.Ct. 1316, 12 L.Ed.2d 377
Party Name:Baggett v. Bullitt
Case Date:June 01, 1964
Court:United States Supreme Court

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377 U.S. 360 (1964)

84 S.Ct. 1316, 12 L.Ed.2d 377




No. 220

United States Supreme Court

June 1, 1964

Argued March 24, 1964




This class action was brought by members of the faculty, staff, and students of the University of Washington for a judgment declaring unconstitutional 1931 and 1955 state statutes requiring the taking of oaths, one for teachers and the other for all state employees, including teachers, a a condition of employment. The 1931 oath requires teachers to swear, by precept and example, to promote respect for the flag and the institutions of the United States and the State of Washington, reverence for law and order and undivided allegiance to the Government of the United States. The 1955 oath for state employees, which incorporates provisions of the state Subversive Activities Act, requires the affiant to swear that he is not a "subversive person": that he does not commit, or advise, teach, abet or advocate another to commit or aid in the commission of any act intended to overthrow or alter, or assist in the overthrow or alteration, of the constitutional form of government by revolution, force or violence. "Subversive organization" and "foreign subversive organization" are defined in similar terms, and the Communist Party is declared a subversive organization. A three-judge District Court held that the 1955 statute and oath were not unduly vague and did not violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and it abstained from ruling on the 1931 oath until it was considered by the state courts.


1. The provisions of the 1955 statute and the 1931 Act violate due process, since they, as well as the oaths based thereon, are unduly vague, uncertain and broad. Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278, followed. Pp. 361-372.

2. A State cannot require an employee to take an unduly vague oath containing a promise of future conduct at the risk of prosecution for perjury or loss of employment, particularly where the exercise of First Amendment freedoms may thereby be deterred. Pp. 373-374.

3. Federal courts do not automatically abstain when faced with a doubtful issue of state law, since abstention involves a discretionary exercise of equity power. Pp. 375-379.

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(a) There are no special circumstances warranting application of the doctrine here. P. 375.

(b) Construction of the 1931 oath cannot eliminate the vagueness from its terms, and would probably raise other constitutional issues. P. 378.

(c) Abstention leads to piecemeal adjudication and protracted delays, a costly result where First Amendment freedoms may be inhibited. Pp. 378-379.

215 F.Supp. 439, reversed.

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants, approximately 64 in number, are members of the faculty, staff and student body of the University of Washington who brought this class action asking for a judgment declaring unconstitutional two Washington statutes requiring the execution of two different oaths by state employees and for an injunction against the enforcement of these statutes by appellees, the President of the University, members of the Washington State Board of Regents and the State Attorney General.

The statutes under attack are Chapter 377, Laws of 1955, and Chapter 103, Laws of 1931, both of which require employees of the State of Washington to take the oaths prescribed in the statutes as a condition of their employment. The 1931 legislation applies only to teachers who, upon applying for a license to teach or renewing an existing contract, are required to subscribe to the following:

I solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the constitution and laws of the United States of

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America and of the State of Washington, and will by precept and example promote respect for the flag and the institutions of the United States of America and the State of Washington, reverence for law and order and undivided allegiance to the government of the United States.

Wash.Laws 1931, c. 103. The oath requirements of the 1955 Act, Wash.Laws 1955, c. 377, applicable to all state employees, incorporate various provisions of the Washington Subversive Activities Act of 1951, which provides generally that

[n]o subversive person, as defined in this act, shall be eligible for employment in, or appointment to any office, or any position of trust or profit in the government, or in the administration of the business, of this state, or of any county, municipality, or other political subdivision of this state.

Wash.Rev.Code § 9.81.060. The term "subversive person" is defined as follows:

"Subversive person" means any person who commits, attempts to commit, or aids in the commission, or advocates, abets, advises or teaches by any means any person to commit, attempt to commit, or aid in the commission of any act intended to overthrow, destroy or alter, or to assist in the overthrow, destruction or alteration of, the constitutional form of the government of the United States, or of the state [84 S.Ct. 1318] of Washington, or any political subdivision of either of them by revolution, force, or violence; or who with knowledge that the organization is an organization as described in subsections (2) and (3) hereof, becomes or remains a member of a subversive organization or a foreign subversive organization.

Wash.Rev.Code § 9.81.010(5). The Act goes on to define at similar length and in similar terms "subversive organization" and "foreign subversive organization," and to declare the Communist Party a subversive

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organization and membership therein a subversive activity.1

On May 28, 1962, some four months after this Court's dismissal of the appeal in Nostrand v. Little, 368 U.S. 436, also a challenge to the 1955 oath,2 the University

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President, acting pursuant to directions of the Board of Regents, issued a memorandum to all University employees notifying them that they would be required to take an oath. Oath Form A3 requires all teaching personnel

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to swear [84 S.Ct. 1319] to the oath of allegiance set out above, to aver that they have read, are familiar with and understand the provisions defining "subversive person" in the Subversive Activities Act of 1951, and to disclaim being a subversive person and membership in the Communist Party or any other subversive or foreign subversive organization. Oath Form B4 requires other state employees to subscribe to all of the above provisions except the 1931 oath. Both forms provide that the oath and

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statements pertinent thereto are made subject to the penalties of perjury.

Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 2284, a three-judge District Court was convened, and a trial was had. That court determined that the 1955 oath and underlying statutory provisions did not infringe upon any First and Fourteenth Amendment freedoms and were not unduly vague. In respect to the claims that the 1931 oath was unconstitutionally vague on its face, the court held that, although the challenge raised a substantial constitutional issue, adjudication was not proper in the absence of proceedings in the state courts which might resolve or avoid the constitutional issue. The action was dismissed. 215 F.Supp. 439. We noted probable jurisdiction because of the public importance of this type of legislation and the recurring serious constitutional questions which it presents. 375 U.S. 808. We reverse.


Appellants contend in this Court that the oath requirements and the statutory provisions on which they are based are invalid on their face because their language is unduly vague, uncertain and broad. We agree with this contention and therefore, without reaching the [84 S.Ct. 1320] numerous other contentions pressed upon us, confine our considerations to that particular question.5

In Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278, the Court invalidated an oath requiring teachers and other employees of the State to swear that they had never lent their "aid, support, advice, counsel, or influence to the Communist Party" because the oath was lacking in

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"terms susceptible of objective measurement" and failed to inform as to what the State commanded or forbade. The statute therefore fell within the compass of those decisions of the Court holding that a law forbidding or requiring conduct in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates due process of law. Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385; Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451; Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495; United States v. Cardiff, 344 U.S. 174; Champlin Refining Co. v. Corporation Comm'n of Oklahoma, 286 U.S. 210.

The oath required by the 1955 statute suffers from similar infirmities. A teacher must swear that he is not a subversive person: that he is not one who commits an act or who advises, teaches, abets or advocates by any means another person to commit or aid in the commission of any act intended to overthrow or alter, or to assist the overthrow or alteration, of the constitutional form of government by revolution, force or violence. A subversive organization is defined as one which engages in or assists activities intended to alter or overthrow the Government by force or violence or which has as a purpose the commission of such acts. The Communist Party is declared in the statute to be a subversive organization, that is, it is presumed that the Party does and will engage in activities intended to overthrow the Government.6 Persons required to swear they understand

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this oath may quite reasonably conclude that any person who aids the Communist Party or teaches or advises known members of the Party is a subversive person because such teaching or advice may now or...

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