401 U.S. 66 (1971), 7, Samuels v. Mackell

Docket Nº:No. 7
Citation:401 U.S. 66, 91 S.Ct. 764, 27 L.Ed.2d 688
Party Name:Samuels v. Mackell
Case Date:February 23, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

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401 U.S. 66 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 764, 27 L.Ed.2d 688




No. 7

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 23, 1971

Argued April 1, 1969

Reargued April 29 and November 16, 1970




Appellants, who had been indicted under New York's criminal anarchy law, sought declaratory as well as injunctive relief against their prosecutions, on the ground that the law is unconstitutional. A three-judge District Court upheld the law and dismissed the complaints.


1. Since there was no showing that appellants have suffered or will suffer great and immediate irreparable injury by virtue of their being prosecuted in the state courts, where they can make their constitutional contentions, there is no basis for federal injunctive relief. Younger v. Harris, ante, p. 37. Pp. 68-69.

2. The same principles that govern the propriety of federal injunctions of state criminal proceedings govern the issuance of federal declaratory judgments in connection with such proceedings, and appellants here should have been denied declaratory relief without consideration of the merits of their constitutional claims. Pp. 69-74.

288 F.Supp. 348, affirmed.

BLACK, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and HARLAN, STEWART, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. DOUGLAS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 74. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which HARLAN, J., joined, ante, p. 54. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which WHITE and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 75.

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BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

The appellants in these two cases were all indicted in a New York state court on charges of criminal anarchy, in violation of §§ 160, 161, 163, and 580(1) of the New York Penal Law.1 They later filed these actions in federal district court,2 alleging (1) that the anarchy statute was void for vagueness in violation of due process, and an abridgment of free speech, press, and assembly, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments; (2) that the anarchy statute had been preempted by federal law; and (3) that the New York laws under which the grand jury had been drawn violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment because they disqualified from jury service any member of the community who did not own real or personal property of the value of at least $250, and because

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the laws furnished no definite standard for determining how jurors were to be selected. Appellants charged that trial of these indictments in state courts would harass them, and cause them to suffer irreparable damages, and they therefore prayed that the state courts should be enjoined from further proceedings. In the alternative, appellants asked the District Court to enter a declaratory judgment to the effect that the challenged state laws were unconstitutional and void on the same grounds. The three-judge court, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2284, held that the New York criminal anarchy law was constitutional [91 S.Ct. 766] as it had been construed by the New York courts, and held that the complaints should therefore be dismissed. 288 F.Supp. 348 (SDNY 1968).3

In No. 2, Younger v. Harris, ante, p. 37, we today decided, on facts very similar to the facts in these cases, that a United States District Court could not issue an injunction to stay proceedings pending in a state criminal court at the time the federal suit was begun. This was because it did not appear from the record that the plaintiffs would suffer immediate irreparable injury in accord with the rule set out in Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157 (1943), and many other cases. Since, in the present case, there is likewise no sufficient showing in the record that the plaintiffs have suffered or would suffer irreparable injury, our decision in the Younger case is dispositive of the prayers for injunctions

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here. The plaintiffs in the present cases also included in their complaints an alternative prayer for a declaratory judgment, but, for the reasons indicated below, we hold that this alternative prayer does not require a different result, and that, under the circumstances of these cases, the plaintiffs were not entitled to federal relief, declaratory or injunctive. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the District Court, although not for the reasons given in that court's opinion.

In our opinion in the Younger case, we set out in detail the historical and practical basis for the settled doctrine of equity that a federal court should not enjoin a state criminal prosecution begun prior to the institution of the federal suit except in very unusual situations, where necessary to prevent immediate irreparable injury. The question presented here is whether, under ordinary circumstances, the same considerations that require the withholding of injunctive relief will make declaratory relief equally inappropriate. The question is not, however, a novel one. It was presented and fully considered by this Court in Great Lakes Co. v. Huffman, 319 U.S. 293 (1943). We find the reasoning of this Court in the Great Lakes case fully persuasive, and think that its holding is controlling here.

In the Great Lakes case, several employers had brought suit against a Louisiana state official, seeking a declaratory judgment that the State's unemployment compensation law, which required the employers to make contributions to a state compensation fund, was unconstitutional. The lower courts had dismissed the complaint on the ground that the challenged law was constitutional. This Court affirmed the dismissal,

but solely on the ground that, in the appropriate exercise of the court's discretion, relief by way of a declaratory judgment should have been denied without consideration

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of the merits.

Id. at 301-302. The Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Mr. Chief Justice Stone, noted first that, under long-settled principle of equity, the federal courts could not have enjoined the Louisiana official from collecting the state tax at issue there unless, as was not true in that case, there was no adequate remedy available in the courts of the State. This judicial doctrine had been approved by Congress in the then-recent Tax Injunction Act of 1937, 50 Stat. 738, now 28 U.S.C. § 1341. Although the declaratory judgment sought by the plaintiffs was a statutory remedy, rather than a traditional form of equitable relief, the Court made clear that a suit for declaratory judgment was nevertheless "essentially an equitable cause of action," and was "analogous to the [91 S.Ct. 767] equity injunction in suits quia timet or for a decree quieting title." 319 U.S. at 300. In addition, the legislative history of the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act of 1934, 48 Stat. 955, as amended, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, showed that Congress had explicitly contemplated that the courts would decide to grant or withhold declaratory relief on the basis of traditional equitable principles. Accordingly, the Court held that,...

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