380 U.S. 479 (1965), 52, Dombrowski v. Pfister

Docket Nº:No. 52
Citation:380 U.S. 479, 85 S.Ct. 1116, 14 L.Ed.2d 22
Party Name:Dombrowski v. Pfister
Case Date:April 26, 1965
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 479

380 U.S. 479 (1965)

85 S.Ct. 1116, 14 L.Ed.2d 22




No. 52

United States Supreme Court

April 26, 1965

Argued January 25, 1965




Appellants, a civil rights organization and its executive director, brought suit in Federal District Court, in which other individuals later joined, for injunctive and declaratory relief to restrain appellees from prosecuting or threatening to prosecute them under Louisiana's Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law and Communist Propaganda Control Law, which they alleged violated their rights of free expression under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Appellants contended that the statutes were excessively broad and susceptible of application in violation of those rights, and were being used by appellees in bad faith, not to secure valid convictions, but to deter appellants' civil rights efforts. Appellants alleged and offered to prove the arrest of the individual appellants under the statutes, the raiding of their offices and illegal seizure of their records, with continued threats of prosecution after invalidation by a state court of the arrests and seizure of evidence preceding this action. A three-judge District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, also holding that abstention was appropriate pending a possible narrowing.construction by the state courts which would avoid unnecessary constitutional adjudication. Thereafter, appellants alleged, the individual appellants were indicted under the Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law. They also claimed that there was no prospect of final state adjudications either under those indictments or under threatened additional prosecutions.


1. The mere possibility of erroneous initial application of constitutional standards by a state court will not ordinarily constitute irreparable injury warranting federal interference with a good faith prosecution and the adjudication during its course of constitutional defenses. Pp. 484-485.

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2. But equitable relief will be granted to prevent a substantial loss or impairment of freedoms of expression resulting from prosecution under an excessively broad statute regulating expression. Pp. 485-489.

(a) Defense of a criminal prosecution will not generally assure ample vindication of First Amendment rights. Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, followed. Pp. 485-486.

(b) A chilling effect upon First Amendment rights might result from such prosecution regardless of its prospects of success or failure, as is indicated by appellants' representations of the actions taken under the statutes. Pp. 487-489.

3. The abstention doctrine is inappropriate where a statute is justifiably attacked on its face, or as applied for the purpose of discouraging protected activities. Pp. 489-491.

(a) The state court's ultimate interpretation of a statute would be irrelevant to meet the claim that it was being applied to discourage civil rights activities. P. 490.

(b) Abstention is inappropriate where a statute regulating speech is properly attacked on its face as being unconstitutionally vague. Pp. 490-491.

(c) Appellants are entitled to an injunction where, as here, no readily apparent construction is available to bring the statute within constitutional confines in a single prosecution, and it is not alleged that their conduct would fall within any conceivable narrowing construction. P. 491.

(d) The State must assume the burden of securing a permissible narrow construction of the statute in a noncriminal proceeding before it may seek modification of the injunction to permit future prosecutions thereunder. P. 491.

4. The statutory definition of "a subversive organization" in § 359(5) of the Louisiana Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law, incorporated in the offense created by § 364(4), under which two of the individual appellants were indicted, results in an overly broad regulation of speech, invalid for the same reasons as held in Baggett v. Bullitt, supra, which involved a substantially similar definition. Pp. 493-494.

5. Section 364(7), creating an offense for failure to register as a member of a "Communist Front Organization," under which each of the individual defendants was indicted, is, on its face, invalid because of its constitutionally impermissible presumption of such status if the organization had been cited as a Communist front

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by designated federal instrumentalities, there being no requirement in the statute of compliance in the process of such citation with procedural safeguards as demanded by Anti-Facist Committee v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123. Pp. 494-496.

6. The District Court shall enjoin prosecution of the pending indictments against the individual appellants, order immediate return of documents seized, and prohibit further enforcement of the sections of the Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law here found void on their face. Without abstention, it shall decide what relief appellants may be entitled to on the basis of their attacks on other sections of that statute, their attacks on the Communist Propaganda Control Law, and the remaining issues raised in the complaint. Pp. 497-498.

27 F.Supp. 556, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants filed a complaint in the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, invoking the Civil

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Rights Act, Rev.Stat. § 1979, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1958 ed.) and seeking declaratory relief and an injunction restraining appellees -- the Governor, police and law enforcement officers, and the Chairman of the Legislative Joint Committee on Un-American Activities in Louisiana -- from prosecuting or threatening to prosecute appellants for alleged violations of the Louisiana Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law and the Communist Propaganda Control Law.1 Appellant Southern Conference Educational Fund, Inc. (SCEF), is active in fostering civil rights for Negroes in Louisiana and other States of the South. Appellant Dombrowski is its Executive Director; intervenor Smith, its Treasurer; and intervenor Waltzer, Smith's law partner and an attorney for SCEF. The complaint alleges that the statutes, on their face, violate the First and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees securing freedom of expression, because overbreadth makes them susceptible of sweeping and improper application abridging those rights. Supported by affidavits and a written offer of proof, the complaint further alleges that the threats to enforce the statutes against appellants are not made with any expectation [85 S.Ct. 1119] of securing valid convictions, but rather are part of a plan to employ arrests, seizures, and threats of prosecution under color of the statutes to harass appellants and discourage them and their supporters from asserting and attempting to vindicate the constitutional rights of Negro citizens of Louisiana.

A three-judge district court, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2281 (1958 ed.) dismissed the complaint, one judge dissenting, "for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." 227 F.Supp. 556, 564. The majority

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were of the view that the allegations, conceded to raise serious constitutional issues, did not present a case of threatened irreparable injury to federal rights which warranted cutting short the normal adjudication of constitutional defenses in the course of state criminal prosecutions; rather, the majority held, this was an appropriate case for abstention, since a possible narrowing construction by the state courts would avoid unnecessary decision of constitutional questions. In accordance with this view, the court withdrew its initial determination that the statutes were not unconstitutional on their face. 227 F.Supp. at 562-563. Postponement of consideration of the federal issues until state prosecution and possible review here of adverse state determination was thought to be especially appropriate, since the statutes concerned the State's "basic right of self-preservation" and the threatened prosecution was

imbued . . . with an aura of sedition or treason or acts designed to substitute a different form of local government by other than lawful means . . . ;

federal court interference with enforcement of such statutes "truly . . . would be a massive emasculation of the last vestige of the dignity of sovereignty." 227 F.Supp. at 559, 560. We noted probable jurisdiction in order to resolve a seeming conflict with our later decision in Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, and to settle important questions concerning federal injunctions against state criminal prosecutions threatening constitutionally protected expression. 377 U.S. 976. We reverse.


In Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, the fountainhead of federal injunctions against state prosecutions, the Court characterized the power and its proper exercise in broad terms: it would be justified where state officers

. . . threaten and are about to commence proceedings, either of a civil or criminal nature, to enforce against parties

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affected an unconstitutional act, violating the Federal Constitution. . . .

209 U.S. at 156. Since that decision, however, considerations of federalism have tempered the exercise of equitable power,2 for the Court has recognized that [85 S.Ct. 1120] federal interference with a State's good faith administration of its criminal laws is peculiarly inconsistent with our federal framework. It is generally to be assumed that state courts and prosecutors will observe constitutional limitations as expounded by this Court, and that the mere possibility of erroneous initial application

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of constitutional standards will usually not amount to the irreparable injury necessary to justify...

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