400 U.S. 433 (1971), 95, Wisconsin v. Constantineau

Docket Nº:No. 95
Citation:400 U.S. 433, 91 S.Ct. 507, 27 L.Ed.2d 515
Party Name:Wisconsin v. Constantineau
Case Date:January 19, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 433

400 U.S. 433 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 507, 27 L.Ed.2d 515




No. 95

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 19, 1971

Argued December 10, 1970




The police chief of Hartford, Wisconsin, pursuant to a state statute, caused to be posted a notice in all retail liquor outlets in Hartford that sales or gifts of liquor to appellee, a resident of that city, were forbidden for one year. The statute provides for such "posting," without notice or hearing, with respect to any person who "by excessive drinking" produces certain conditions or exhibits specified traits, such as exposing himself or family "to want" or becoming "dangerous to the peace" of the community. On appellee's suit seeking, inter alia, injunctive relief, a three-judge federal court held the statute unconstitutional as violative of procedural due process.


1. The label or characterization given an individual by "posting," though a mark of serious illness to some, is to others such a stigma or badge of disgrace that procedural due process requires notice and an opportunity to be heard. Pp. 436-437.

2. Since here the state statute is unambiguous and there is no uncertain issue of state law, the federal court properly proceeded to determine the federal constitutional claim. Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 250-251. Pp.437-39.

302 F.Supp. 861, affirmed.

DOUGLAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which HARLAN, BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 439. BLACK, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 443.

Page 434

DOUGLAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellee is an adult resident of Hartford, Wis. She brought suit in a federal district court in Wisconsin to have a Wisconsin statute declared unconstitutional.1 A three-judge court was convened, 28 U.S.C. § 2281. That court, by a divided vote, held the Act unconstitutional, 302 F.Supp. 861, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 397 U.S. 985.

The Act, Wis.Stat. § 176.26 (1967), provides that designated persons may in writing forbid the sale or gift of intoxicating liquors to one who, "by excessive drinking," produces described conditions or exhibits specified traits, such as exposing himself or family "to want" or becoming "dangerous to the peace" of the community.2

Page 435

[91 S.Ct. 509] The chief of police of Hartford, without notice or hearing to appellee, caused to be posted a notice in all retail liquor outlets in Hartford that sales or gifts of liquors to appellee were forbidden for one year. Thereupon, this suit was brought against the chief of police claiming damages and asking for injunctive relief. The State of Wisconsin intervened as a defendant on the injunctive phase of the case, and that was the only issue tried and decided, the three-judge court holding the Act unconstitutional on its face and enjoining its enforcement. The court said:

In "posting" an individual, the particular city official or spouse is doing more than denying him the ability to purchase alcoholic beverages within

Page 436

the city limits. In essence, he is giving notice to the public that he has found the particular individual's behavior to fall within one of the categories enumerated in the statutes. It would be naive not to recognize that such "posting" or characterization of an individual will expose him to public embarrassment and ridicule, and it is our opinion that procedural due process requires that, before one acting pursuant to State statute can make such a quasi-judicial determination, the individual involved must be given notice of the intent to post and an opportunity to present his side of the matter.

302 F.Supp. at 864.

We have no doubt as to the power of a State to deal with the evils described in the Act. The police power of the States over intoxicating liquors was extremely broad even prior to the Twenty-first Amendment. Crane v. Campbell, 245 U.S. 304. The only issue present here is whether the label or characterization given a person by "posting," though a mark of serious illness to some, is to others such a stigma or badge of disgrace that procedural due process requires notice and an opportunity to be heard. We agree with the District Court that the private interest is such that those requirements of procedural due process must be met.

It is significant that most of the provisions of the Bill of Rights are procedural, for it is procedure that marks much of the difference between rule by law and rule by fiat.

We reviewed in Cafeteria Workers v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 895, the nature of the various "private interest[s]" that have fallen on one side or the other of the line. See also Sniadach v. Family Finance Corp., 395 U.S. 337, 339-342. Generalizations are hazardous, as some state and federal administrative procedures are summary

Page 437

by reason of necessity or history. Yet certainly where the State attaches "a badge of infamy" to the citizen, due process comes into play. Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183, 191.

[T]he right to be heard before being condemned to suffer grievous loss of any kind, even though it may not involve the stigma and hardships of a criminal conviction, is a principle basic to our society.

Anti-Fascist Committee v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 168 (Frankfurter, J., concurring).

Where a person's good name, reputation, honor, or integrity is at stake because of what the government is doing to him, notice and an opportunity to be heard are essential. "Posting" under the Wisconsin Act may to some be merely the mark of illness; to others it is a stigma, an official branding of a person. The label is a degrading one. Under the Wisconsin Act, a resident of Hartford is given no process at all. This appellee was not afforded a chance to defend herself. She may have been the victim of an official's caprice. Only when the whole proceedings leading to the pinning of an unsavory label on a person are aired can oppressive results be prevented.

It is suggested that the three-judge court should have stayed its hand while the aggrieved person repaired to the state courts to obtain a construction of the Act or relief from it. The fact that Wisconsin does not raise the point does not, of course, mean that it lacks merit. Yet the suggestion is not in keeping with the precedents.

Congress could, of course, have routed all federal constitutional questions through the state court systems, saving to this Court the final say when it came to review of the state court judgments. But our First Congress3 resolved differently, and created the federal court system and in time granted the federal courts various heads of

Page 438

jurisdiction,4 which today involve most federal constitutional rights. Once that jurisdiction was granted, the federal courts resolved those questions even when they were enmeshed with state law questions. In 1941, we gave vigor to the so-called abstention doctrine in Railroad Commission v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496. In that case, an authoritative resolution of a knotty state law question might end the litigation and not give rise to any federal constitutional claim. Id. at 501. We therefore directed the District Court to retain the suit pending a determination by a state court of the underlying state law question. We applied the abstention doctrine most recently in Fornaris v. Ridge Tool Co., ante, p. 41, where a relatively new Puerto Rican statute, which had not been authoritatively construed by the Commonwealth's courts, "might be judicially confined to a more narrow ambit which would avoid all constitutional questions." We ordered the federal courts to stay their hands until the Puerto Rican [91 S.Ct. 511] courts had spoken. Speaking of Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, we noted that the

three-judge federal court should not have proceeded to strike down an Alaska law which, if construed by the Alaska Supreme Court, might be so confined as not to have any constitutional infirmity.

Ante at 43. But the abstention rule only applies where "the issue of State law is uncertain." Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534. Thus, our abstention cases have dealt with unresolved questions of state law which only a state tribunal could authoritatively construe. Reetz v. Bozanich, supra; City

Page 439

of Meridian v. Southern Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 358 U.S. 639.

In the present case, the Wisconsin Act does not contain any provision whatsoever for notice and hearing. There is no ambiguity in the state statute. There are no provisions which could fairly be taken to mean that notice and hearing might be given under some circumstances or under some construction, but not under others. The Act, on its face, gives the chief of police the power to do what he did to the appellee. Hence, the naked question, uncomplicated by an unresolved state law, is whether that Act, on its face, is unconstitutional. As we said in Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 251, abstention should not be ordered merely to await an attempt to vindicate the claim in a state court. Where there is no ambiguity in the state statute, the federal court should not abstain, but should proceed to decide the federal constitutional claim. Id. at 250-251. We would negate the history of the enlargement of the jurisdiction of the federal district...

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