414 U.S. 488 (1974), 72-953, O'Shea v. Littleton

Docket Nº:No. 72-953
Citation:414 U.S. 488, 94 S.Ct. 669, 38 L.Ed.2d 674
Party Name:O'Shea v. Littleton
Case Date:January 15, 1974
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 488

414 U.S. 488 (1974)

94 S.Ct. 669, 38 L.Ed.2d 674




No. 72-953

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 15, 1974

Argued October 17, 1973




Respondents, 17 black and two white residents of Cairo, Illinois, brought a civil rights class action against petitioners, a magistrate and a circuit court judge, who allegedly engaged under color of state law, in a continuing pattern and practice of conduct consisting of illegal bond-setting, sentencing, and jury fee practices in criminal cases, which assertedly deprived respondents and members of their class of their rights under the Constitution and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981-1983, 1985. The District Court dismissed the action for want of jurisdiction to issue the injunctive relief sought and on the ground of judicial immunity. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that issuance of injunctions against judicial officers was not forbidden if their conduct was intentionally racially discriminatory against a cognizable class of persons. Absent sufficient remedy at law, it was held that, if respondents proved their allegations, the District Court should fashion appropriate relief to enjoin petitioners from depriving others of their constitutional rights while carrying out their judicial duties in the future.


1. The complaint fails to satisfy the threshold requirement of Art. III of the Constitution that those who seek to invoke the power of federal courts must allege an actual case or controversy where none of the named plaintiffs is identified as himself having suffered any injury in the manner specified, the claim alleging injury is in only the most general terms, and there are no allegations that any relevant state criminal statute is unconstitutional on its face or as applied or that plaintiffs have been or will be improperly charged with violating criminal law. Pp. 493-499.

(a) If none of the named plaintiffs purporting to represent a class meets the case or controversy requirement, none may seek relief on behalf of himself or any other member of the class. Pp. 494-495.

Page 489

(b) That requirement is not satisfied by general assertions or inferences that, in the course of their activities, respondents will be prosecuted for violating valid criminal laws. P. 497.

[94 S.Ct. 673] (c) Where it can only be speculated whether respondents will be arrested for violating an ordinance or state statute, particularly in the absence of allegations that unconstitutional criminal statutes are being employed to deter constitutionally protected conduct, and respondents have not pointed to any imminent prosecutions contemplated against them so that they do not claim any constitutional right to engage in conduct proscribed by therefore presumably permissible state laws, or that it is otherwise their intention to so conduct themselves, the threat of injury from the alleged course of conduct they attack is too remote to satisfy the case or controversy requirement and permit adjudication by a federal court. Pp. 497-498.

2. Even if the complaint were considered to present an existing case or controversy, no adequate basis for equitable relief has been stated. Pp. 499-504.

(a) The injunctive relief sought by respondents would constitute a ma, or continuing intrusion of the equitable power of the federal courts into the daily conduct of state criminal proceedings, and would sharply conflict with recognized principles of equitable restraint, Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37. Pp. 499-502.

(b) Respondents also failed to establish the basic requisites of the issuance of equitable relief -- the likelihood of substantial and immediate irreparable injury, and the inadequacy of remedies at law -- in view of the conjectural nature of the threatened injury to which respondents are allegedly subjected, and where there are available other procedures, both state and federal, which could provide relief. Pp. 502-504.

468 F.2d 389, reversed.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment and in Part I of the Court's opinion, post, p. 504. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 505.

Page 490

WHITE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondents are 19 named individuals who commenced this civil rights action, individually and on behalf of a class of citizens of the city of Cairo, Illinois, against the State's Attorney for Alexander County, Illinois, his investigator, the Police Commissioner of Cairo, and the petitioners here, Michael O'Shea and Dorothy Spomer, Magistrate and Associate Judge of the Alexander County Circuit Court, respectively, alleging that they have intentionally engaged in, and are continuing to engage in, various patterns and practices of conduct in the administration of the criminal justice system in Alexander County that deprive respondents of rights secured by the First, Sixth, Eighth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments, and by 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1982, 1983, and 1985. The complaint, as amended, alleges that, since the early 1960's, black citizens of Cairo, together with a small number of white persons on their behalf, have been actively, peaceably and lawfully seeking equality of opportunity and treatment in employment, housing, education, participation

Page 491

in governmental decisionmaking and in ordinary day-to-day relations with white citizens and officials of Cairo, and have, as an important part of their protest, participated in and encouraged others to participate in an economic boycott of city merchants who respondents consider have engaged in racial discrimination. Allegedly, there had resulted a great deal of tension and antagonism among the white citizens and officials of Cairo.

The individual respondents are 17 black and two white residents of Cairo. The class, or classes, which they purport to represent are alleged to include

all those who, on account of their race or creed and because of their exercise of First Amendment rights, have [been] in the past and continue to be subjected to the unconstitutional and selectively discriminatory enforcement and administration of criminal justice in Alexander County,

as well as financially poor persons [94 S.Ct. 674] "who, on account of their poverty, are unable to afford bail, or are unable to afford counsel and jury trials in city ordinance violation cases." The complaint charges the State's Attorney, his investigator, and the Police Commissioner with a pattern and practice of intentional racial discrimination in the performance of their duties, by which the state criminal laws and procedures are deliberately applied more harshly to black residents of Cairo and inadequately applied to white persons who victimize blacks, to deter respondents from engaging in their lawful attempt to achieve equality. Specific supporting examples of such conduct involving some of the individual respondents are detailed in the complaint as to the State's Attorney and his investigator.

With respect to the petitioners, the county magistrate and judge, a continuing pattern and practice of conduct, under color of law, is alleged to have denied and to continue to deny the constitutional rights of respondents and members of their class in three respects:

Page 492

(1) petitioners set bond in criminal cases according to an unofficial bond schedule without regard to the facts of a case or circumstances of an individual defendant in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments; (2) "on information and belief," they set sentences higher and impose harsher conditions for respondents and members of their class than for white persons, and (3) they require respondents and members of their class when charged with violations of city ordinances which carry fines and possible jail penalties if the fine cannot be paid, to pay for a trial by jury in violation of the Sixth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Each of these continuing practices is alleged to have been carried out intentionally to deprive respondents and their class of the protections of the county criminal justice system and to deter them from engaging in their boycott and similar activities. The complaint further alleges that there is no adequate remedy at law and requests that the practices be enjoined. No damages were sought against the petitioners in this case, nor were any specific instances involving the individually named respondents set forth in the claim against these judicial officers.

The District Court dismissed the case for want of jurisdiction to issue the injunctive relief prayed for and on the ground that petitioners were immune from suit with respect to acts done in the course of their judicial duties. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that Pierson v. Ray, 386 U.S. 547, 554 (1967), on which the District Court relied, did not forbid the issuance of injunctions against judicial officers if it is alleged and proved that they have knowingly engaged in conduct intended to discriminate against a cognizable class of persons on the basis of race. Absent sufficient remedy at law, the Court of Appeals ruled that, in the event respondents proved their allegations, the District Court should proceed to fashion appropriate injunctive relief

Page 493

to prevent petitioners from depriving others of their constitutional rights in the course of carrying out their judicial duties in the future.1 We granted certiorari. 411 U.S. 915 (1973).


We reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals. The complaint failed to satisfy the threshold...

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