Babbitt v. United Farm Workers National Union

Citation442 U.S. 289,99 S.Ct. 2301,60 L.Ed.2d 895
Decision Date05 June 1979
Docket NumberNo. 78-225,78-225
PartiesBruce BABBITT, Governor of the State of Arizona, et al., Appellants, v. UNITED FARM WORKERS NATIONAL UNION, etc., et al
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Appellees (a farmworkers' union, a union agent, farmworkers, and a union supporter) brought suit in Federal District Court in Arizona seeking a declaration of the constitutionality of various provisions of Arizona's farm labor statute, as well as of the entire statute, and an injunction against its enforcement. A three-judge court ruled unconstitutional on various grounds the provisions (1) specifying procedures for the election of employee bargaining representatives; (2) limiting union publicity directed at consumers of agricultural products; (3) imposing a criminal penalty for violations of the statute; (4) excusing an agricultural employer from furnishing a union any materials, information, time, or facilities to enable it to communicate with the employer's employees (access provision); and (5) governing arbitration of labor disputes, construed by the court as mandating compulsory arbitration. Deeming these provisions inseparable from the remainder of the statute, the court went on to declare the whole statute unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.


1. The challenges to the provisions regulating election procedures, consumer publicity, and criminal sanctions present a case or controversy, but the challenges to the access and arbitration provisions are not justiciable. Pp. 297-305.

(a) The fact that appellees have not invoked the election procedures provision in the past or expressed any intention to do so in the future, does not defeat the justiciability of their challenge in view of the nature of their claim that delays attending the statutory election scheme and the technical limitations on who may vote in unit elections severely curtail their freedom of association. To await appellees' participation in an election would not assist the resolution of the threshold question whether the election procedures are subject to scrutiny under the First Amendment at all, and as this question is dispositive of appellees' challenge there is no warrant for postponing consideration of the election procedures claim. Pp. 299-301. (b) With respect to appellees' claim that the consumer publicity provision (which on its face proscribes, as an unfair labor practice, dishonest, untruthful, and deceptive publicity) unconstitutionally penalizes inaccuracies inadvertently uttered, appellees have reason to fear prosecution for violation of the provision, where the State has not disavowed any intention of invoking the criminal penalty provision (which applies in terms to "[a]ny person . . . who violates any provision" of the statute) against unions that commit unfair labor practices. Accordingly, the positions of the parties are sufficiently adverse with respect to the consumer publicity provision to present a case or controversy. For the same reasons, a case or controversy is also presented by appellees' claim that such provision unduly restricts protected speech by limiting publicity to that directed at agricultural products of an employer with whom a union has a primary dispute. Pp. 301-303.

(c) Where it is clear that appellees desire to engage in prohibited consumer publicity campaigns, their claim that the criminal penalty provision is unconstitutionally vague was properly entertained by the District Court and may be raised in this appeal. If the provision were truly vague, appellees should not be expected to pursue their collective activities at their peril. P. 303.

(d) Appellees' challenge to the access provision is not justiciable, where not only is it conjectural to anticipate that access will be denied but, more importantly, appellees' claim that such provision violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments because it deprives the state agency responsible for enforcing the statute of any discretion to compel agricultural employers to furnish the enumerated items, depends upon the attributes of the situs involved. An opinion on the constitutionality of the provision at this time would be patently advisory, and adjudication of the challenge must wait until appellees can assert an interest in seeking access to particular facilities as well as a palpable basis for believing that access will be refused. Pp.303-304.

(e) Similarly, any ruling on the allegedly compulsory arbitration provision would be wholly advisory, where the record discloses that there is no real and concrete dispute as to the application of the provision, appellees themselves acknowledging that employers may elect responses to an arguably unlawful strike other than seeking an injunction and agreeing to arbitrate, and appellees never having contested the constitutionality of the provision. P. 304-305.

2. The District Court properly considered the constitutionality of the election procedures provision even though a prior construction of the provision by the Arizona state courts was lacking, but the court should have abstained from adjudicating the challenges to the consumer publicity and criminal penalty provisions until material unresolved questions of state law were determined by the Arizona courts. Pp. 305-312.

(a) A state-court construction of the election procedures provision would not obviate the need for decision of the constitutional issue or materially alter the question to be decided, as the resolution of the question whether such procedures are affected with a First Amendment interest at all is dispositive of appellees' challenge. P. 306.

(b) The criminal penalty provision might be construed broadly as applying to all provisions of the statute affirmatively proscribing or commanding courses of conduct, or narrowly as applying only to certain provisions susceptible of being "violated," but in either case the provision is reasonably susceptible of constructions that might undercut or modify appellees' vagueness attack or otherwise significantly alter the constitutional questions requiring resolution. Pp.307-308.

(c) In view of the fact that the consumer publicity provision is patently ambiguous and subject to varying interpretations which would substantially affect the constitutional question presented, the District Court erred in entertaining all aspects of appellees' challenge to such provision without the benefit of a construction thereof by the Arizona courts. Pp. 308-312.

3. The District Court erred in invalidating the election procedures provision. Arizona was not constitutionally obliged to provide procedures pursuant to which agricultural employees, through a chosen representative might compel their employers to negotiate, and that it has undertaken to do so in an assertedly niggardly fashion, presents as a general matter no First Amendment problems. Moreover, the statute does not preclude voluntary recognition of a union by an agricultural employer. Pp. 312-314.

449 F.Supp. 449, reversed and remanded.

Rex E. Lee, Washington, D. C., for appellants.

Jerome Cohen, Salinas, Cal., for appellees.

Mr. Justice WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case we review the decision of a three-judge District Court setting aside as unconstitutional Arizona's farm labor statute. The District Court perceived particular constitutional problems with five provisions of the Act; deeming these provisions inseparable from the remainder of the Act, the court declared the entire Act unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement. We conclude that the challenges to two of the provisions specifically invalidated did not present a case or controversy within the jurisdiction of a federal court and hence should not have been adjudicated. Although the attacks on two other provisions were justiciable, we conclude that the District Court should have abstained from deciding the federal issues posed until material, unresolved questions of state law were determined by the Arizona courts. Finally, we believe that the District Court properly reached the merits of the fifth provision but erred in invalidating it. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the District Court.


In 1972, the Arizona Legislature enacted a comprehensive scheme for the regulation of agricultural employment relations. Arizona Agricultural Employment Relations Act, Ariz.Rev.Stat.Ann. §§ 23-1381 to 23-1395 (Supp.1978). The statute designates procedures governing the election of employee bargaining representatives, establishes various rights of agricultural employers and employees, proscribes a range of employer and union practices, and establishes a civil and criminal enforcement scheme to ensure compliance with the substantive provisions of the Act.

Appellees—the United Farm Workers National Union (UFW), an agent of the UFW, named farmworkers, and a supporter of the UFW commenced suit in federal court to secure a declaration of the unconstitutionality of various sections of the Act, as well as of the entire Act, and an injunction against its enforcement.1 A three-judge District Court was convened to entertain the action. On the basis of past instances of enforcement of the Act and in light of the provision for imposition of criminal penalties for "violat[ion of] any provision" of the Act, Ariz.Rev.Stat.Ann. § 23-1392 (Supp.1978), the court determined that appellees' challenges were presently justiciable.2 Reaching the merits of some of the claims, the court ruled unconstitutional five distinct provisions of the Act.3 Specifically, the court disapproved the section specifying election procedures, § 23-1389,4 on the ground that, by failing to account for seasonal employment peaks, it precluded the consummation of elections before most workers dispersed and hence frustrated the associational rights of agricultural employees. The court was also of the view that the Act restricted unduly the class of employees technically eligible to vote for...

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