43 32 v. Moore 8212 1475

Decision Date18 February 1975
Docket NumberNo. 73,73
Citation420 U.S. 77,43 L.Ed.2d 32,95 S.Ct. 870
Parties. 43 L.Ed.2d 32 ., Appellants, v. Richard E. MOORE et al. —1475
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Appellee justices of the peace and constables, threatened with removal before their elected terms expired, brought this action in federal court, challenging on due process and equal protection grounds the constitutionality of a Texas statute providing, inter alia, that when the boundaries of certain precincts are changed and more than the allotted number of justices of the peace or constables reside within the changed district the offices shall become vacant and shall be filled as are other vacancies. Under Texas constitutional provisions (a) a justice of the peace or constable 'shall hold his office for four years and until his successor shall be elected and qualified,' and (b) such officers may be removed by state district court judges for various causes after notice and jury trial. A three-judge Federal District Court held that the statute violated equal protection by removing some county officers but not others, and ordered appellee officials' reinstatement. Held: In view of the unsettled state of Texas law as to whether the state constitutional provisions ensure justices of the peace and constables tenure until their elected terms expire even when the challenged statute would require their ouster, the District Court should have abstained from deciding the federal constitutional issue, it being far from certain under various Texas precedents that appellee officeholders must lose their jobs or that the reinstatement relief ordered by the District Court is available. Pp. 82-89.

378 F.Supp. 1006, reversed and remanded.

Edward J. Landry, Houston, Tex., for appellants.

C. Anthony Friloux, Jr., and John G. Gilleland, Houston, Tex., for appellees.

Opinion of the Court by Mr. Justice MARSHALL, announced by Mr. Chief Justice BURGER.

The appellees brought this action to challenge a plan redistricting the justice of the peace precincts in Harris County, Tex. Because the plan provided for consolidation of several precincts, three justices of the peace and two constables lost their jobs. These five officials, along with two voters from the defunct precincts, sought to enjoin implementation of the redistricting plan on the ground that the Texas statute providing for their removal from office at the time of redistricting denied them the equal protection of the laws. The three-judge District Court granted relief, declaring the statute unconstitutional and enjoining the redistricting. The order of the District Court was stayed by Mr. Justice Powell. We denied a motion to vacate the stay, 415 U.S. 905, 94 S.Ct. 1398, 39 L.Ed.2d 462 (1974), and subsequently noted probable jurisdiction, 417 U.S. 928, 94 S.Ct. 2637, 41 L.Ed.2d 231 (1974). We reverse and remand to the District Court with instructions to dismiss the complaint without prejudice.


Under Texas law, the Commissioners Court is the general governing body of each county; one of its duties is to divide the county into precincts for the election of justices of the peace and constables, and to redistrict the precincts when necessary. Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann., Art. 2351(1) (1971).

In June 1973, the Commissioners Court of Harris County adopted a redistricting plan for the eight justice of the peace precincts in the county. The last redistricting had taken place in 1876, and the enormous population changes in the Houston area had resulted in gross disparities in population among the precincts: the largest precinct contained approximately one million persons, while the smallest had fewer than 7,000.

Under the old plan, one justice of the peace and one constable were assigned to each precinct except the largest, which was allotted two justices and one constable. Because of the apparent discrepancy in the workload of the officials in different precincts, the Commissioners Court adopted a redistricting plan that redrew the precinct lines. Although the proposed new precincts still varied substantially in population size, the disparity was much less than it had been.

Among other changes, the plan consolidated three of the smallest precincts and parts of two others into a single new precinct. As a result, four justices and three constables found themselves residents of a single precinct, which was entitled by law to a maximum of only one constable and two justices of the peace. Pursuant to a Texas statute, Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann., Art. 2351 1/2(c), (1971), the Commissioners Court declared the constable and justice posts for that precinct to be vacant, since there were more officials living in the precinct than positions available.1 The Commissioners Court then filled the vacancies, Tex.Rev.Civ.Stat.Ann. Art. 2355 (1971), appointing one of the displaced constables to the new constable post and one of the displaced justices to one of the two new justice positions. A nonincumbent was appointed to fill the other slot.

The five officeholders, threatened with removal prior to the expiration of their elected terms, resorted to court action in an effort to block implementation of the redistricting plan. One of the constables filed suit in state court, but when that court denied his application for a temporary injunction, he apparently abandoned the action. Shortly thereafter, the three displaced justices and two constables, along with two voters who had lived in their precincts, brought suit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, claiming that the redistricting scheme was unconstitutional. Their removal pursuant to Art. 2351 1/2(c) violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the officials contended. More specifically, they argued that the redistricting order was constitutionally invalid because it did not meet 'one man, one vote' standards, because it denied voters in certain precincts the full effect of their votes, and because the precincts were redrawn along racial lines. Although the appellees did not expressly raise a statelaw claim in their complaint,2 they argued in their pretrial brief that Art. 2351 1/2(c) was invalid under the State Constitution as well, relying on several state-court cases and two opinions of the Texas Attorney General. In response, the appellants requested that the complaint be dismissed because the suit raised no substantial federal questions and because the appellees had failed to exhaust their state remedies before bringing suit in federal court.3

A three-judge court was convened. It heard argument and issued an order later the same day. In its order, the court asserted jurisdiction and enjoined implementation of the redistricting plan on the ground that the Texas statute providing for the removal of the plaintiff justices and constables was unconstitutional on its face. A week later the court filed a brief opinion in which it wrote that insofar as the statute shortens the term of an elected public official merely because redistricting places him in a district with others, 'it invidiously and irrationally discriminates between him and others not so affected.' In addition, the court held that the statute as applied had discriminated between those who voted for or were entitled to vote for the displaced officials, and the voters in other precincts where the elected officials were permitted to serve a full term. Because it found no compelling interest served by redistricting in the middle of plaintiffs' terms,4 the court held that to the extent that the redistricting order appointed other persons to plaintiffs' offices and prevented plaintiffs from carrying out their duties and receiving their salaries for the remainder of their elected terms, the order was invalid.5


The appellants urge us to reverse the District Court on the merits or, in the alternative, to order the court to abstain pending determination of the state-law questions that pervade this case.6 Because we agree with appellants that the District Court should have abstained, we reverse without reaching the merits of the equal protection claim sustained by the District Court.

In Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1941), the Court held that when a federal constitutional claim is premised on an unsettled question of state law, the federal court should stay its hand in order to provide the state courts an apportunity to settle the underlying state-law question and thus avoid the possibility of unnecessarily deciding a constitutional question. Since that decision, we have invoked the 'Pullman doctrine' on numerous occasions. E.g., Lake Carriers' Assn. v. MacMullan, 406 U.S. 498, 92 S.Ct. 1749, 32 L.Ed.2d 257 (1972); Askew v. Hargrave, 401 U.S. 476, 91 S.Ct. 856, 28 L.Ed.2d 196 (1971); Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed.2d 68 (1970); Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167, 79 S.Ct. 1025, 3 L.Ed.2d 1152 (1959); Spector Motor Service, Inc. v. McLaughlin, 323 U.S. 101, 65 S.Ct. 152, 89 L.Ed. 101 (1944); see Field, Abstention in Constitutional Cases: The Scope of the Pullman Abstention Doctrine, 122 U.Pa.L.Rev. 1071, 1084—1101 (1974). We have repeatedly warned, however, that because of the delays inherent in the abstention process and the danger that valuable federal rights might be lost in the absence of expeditious adjudication in the federal court, abstention must be invoked only in 'special circumstances,' see Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 248, 88 S.Ct. 391, 395, 19 L.Ed.2d 444 (1967), and only upon careful consideration of the facts of each case. Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 375—379, 84 S.Ct. 1316, 1324—1327, 12 L.Ed.2d 377 (1964); Railroad Comm'n v. Pullman Co., supra, at 500, 61 S.Ct., at 645.

Where there is an action pending in state court that will likely resolve the state-law questions underlying the federal claim, we have regularly ordered abstention. See...

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