389 U.S. 241 (1967), 29, Zwickler v. Koota

Docket Nº:No. 29
Citation:389 U.S. 241, 88 S.Ct. 391, 19 L.Ed.2d 444
Party Name:Zwickler v. Koota
Case Date:December 05, 1967
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 241

389 U.S. 241 (1967)

88 S.Ct. 391, 19 L.Ed.2d 444




No. 29

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 5, 1967

Argued October 12, 1967




Reversal on state law grounds of appellant's conviction of violating a New York statute by distributing anonymous political handbills was affirmed by the State's highest court. Thereafter appellant, invoking federal jurisdiction under the Civil Rights Act and the Declaratory Judgment Act, sought in the District Court declaratory relief and an injunction against future criminal prosecutions for violating the statute, claiming that, on its face, the statute contravened the First Amendment by its "overbreadth." A three-judge court applied the doctrine of abstention and dismissed the complaint, leaving the appellant to assert his constitutional challenge in the state courts either in the defense of any criminal prosecution for future violations of the statute or by way of a declaratory judgment action. The court held that abstention from ruling on the declaratory judgment issue was warranted because appellant had made no special showing of the need for an injunction against criminal prosecution.


1. The District Court erred in refusing to pass on appellant's claim for a declaratory judgment as there was no "special circumstance" warranting its application of the abstention doctrine to that claim. Pp. 245-252.

(a) A federal court has the duty of giving due respect to a suitor's choice of a federal forum for the hearing and decision of his federal constitutional claims and escape from that duty is not permissible merely because state courts are equally responsible for the enforcement and protection of federal constitutional rights. P. 248.

(b) A statutory construction by the state courts would not avoid or modify the constitutional question as the statute involved here is being challenged not for its lack of clarity, but for its "overbreadth." Pp. 249-250.

(c) The principle that abstention cannot be used simply to give the state courts the first opportunity to vindicate a federal claim is particularly significant when, as here, the statute is being attacked as repugnant to the First Amendment, for the delay

Page 242

from requiring recourse to the state courts might chill the very constitutional right which a plaintiff seeks to protect. P. 252.

2. The District Court had the duty of adjudicating the request for a declaratory judgment regardless of its conclusion as to the propriety of the issuance of an injunction, for, as Dombrowski v. Pfister, 380 U.S. 479, made clear, the questions of abstention and of injunctive relief are not the same. Pp. 252-255.

261 F.Supp. 985, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Section 781-b of the New York Penal Law makes it a crime to distribute in quantity, among other things, any handbill for another which contains any statement concerning any candidate in connection with any election of public officers, without also printing thereon the name and post office address of the printer thereof and of the person at whose instance such handbill is so distributed.1

Page 243

Appellant was convicted of violating the statute by distributing [88 S.Ct. 393] anonymous handbills critical of the record of a United States Congressman seeking reelection at the 1964 elections. The conviction was reversed, on state law grounds, by the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Term,2 and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed

Page 244

without opinion, 16 N.Y.2d 1069, 266 N.Y.S.2d 140, 213 N.E.2d 467. Thereafter, appellant, invoking the District Court's jurisdiction under he Civil Rights Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1343, and the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201,3 sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York on the ground that, on its face, the statute was repugnant to the guarantees of free expression secured by the Federal Constitution. His contention, below and in this Court, is that the statute suffers from impermissible "overbreadth" in that its sweep embraces anonymous handbills both within and outside the protection of the First Amendment. Cf. Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60. A three-judge court, one judge dissenting, applied the doctrine of abstention and dismissed the complaint,4 remitting appellant to the New York courts

Page 245

to assert his constitutional challenge in defense of any criminal prosecution for any future violations of the statute or, short of this, to the institution of "an action in the state court for a declaratory judgment."5 261 F.Supp. 985, 993. Because appellant's appeal presents an important question of [88 S.Ct. 394] the scope of the discretion of the district courts to abstain from deciding the merits of a challenge that a state statute on its face violates the Federal Constitution, we noted probable jurisdiction. 386 U.S. 906. We reverse.

We shall consider first whether abstention from the declaratory judgment sought by appellant would have been appropriate in the absence of his request for injunctive relief, and second, if not, whether abstention was nevertheless justified because appellant also sought an injunction against future criminal prosecutions for violation of § 781-b.


During most of the Nation's first century, Congress relied on the state courts to vindicate essential rights arising under the Constitution and federal laws. The only exception was the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 85, providing for review in this Court when a claim of federal right was denied by a state court.6

Page 246

But that policy was completely altered after the Civil War, when nationalism dominated political thought7 and brought with it congressional investiture of the federal judiciary with enormously increased powers. The Act of March 3, 1875,8 was the principal ". . . [88 S.Ct. 395] measure of the

Page 247

broadening federal domain in the area of individual rights," McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668, 673. By that statute

. . . Congress gave the federal courts the vast range of power which had lain dormant in the Constitution since 1789. These courts ceased to be restricted tribunals of fair dealing between citizens of different states and became the primary and powerful reliances for vindicating every right given by the Constitution, the laws, and treaties of the Untied States.

(Emphasis added.) Frankfurter & Landis, The Business of the Supreme Court: A Study in the Federal Judicial System 65. Indeed, even before the 1875 Act, Congress, in the Civil Rights Act of 1871,9 subjected to suit,

[e]very person who, under color of any statute . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person . . . to the deprivation of any rights . . . secured by the Constitution and laws . . . ,

42 U.S.C. § 1983, and gave the district courts "original jurisdiction" of actions "[t]o redress the deprivation, under color of any State law . . . of any right . . . secured by the Constitution. . . ." 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3).

Page 248

In thus expanding federal judicial power, Congress imposed the duty upon all levels of the federal judiciary to give due respect to a suitor's choice of a federal forum for the hearing and decision of his federal constitutional claims. Plainly, escape from that duty is not permissible merely because state courts also have the solemn responsibility, equally with the federal courts, ". . . to guard, enforce, and protect every right granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States . . . ," Robb v. Connolly, 111 U.S. 624, 637.

We yet like to believe that, wherever the Federal courts sit, human rights under the Federal Constitution are always a proper subject for adjudication, and that we have not the right to decline the exercise of that jurisdiction simply because the rights asserted may be adjudicated in some other forum.

Stapleton v. Mitchell, 60 F.Supp. 51, 55; see McNeese v. Board of Eduction, 373 U.S. at 674, n. 6. Cf. Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 264, 404. The judge-made doctrine of abstention, first fashioned in 1941 in Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, sanctions such escape only in narrowly limited "special circumstances." Propper v. Clark, 337 U.S. 472, 492.10 One of the "special circumstances" -- that

Page 249

thought by the District Court to be present in this case -- is the susceptibility of a state statute of a construction by the state courts that would avoid or modify the constitutional question. Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167. Compare Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360.11

But we have here no question of a construction of § 781-b that would "avoid or modify the constitutional question." Appellant's challenge is not that the statute is void for "vagueness," that is, that it is a statute

which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application. . . .

Connally v. General Construction Co., 269 U.S. 385, 391.12 Rather his constitutional

Page 250

attack is that the statute, although lacking neither clarity nor precision, is void for "overbreadth," that is, that it offends the constitutional principle that

a governmental purpose to control or prevent activities constitutionally subject to state regulation may not be achieved by means which sweep unnecessarily broadly and thereby invade the area of protected freedoms.

NAACP v. Alabama, 377 U.S. 288, 307. See Aptheker v. Secretary of State, 378 U.S. 500, 508-509; NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415,...

To continue reading