Douglas v. City Jeannette Pennsylvania Murdock v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Martin v. City of Struthers, Ohio 8212 487, 238

Citation63 S.Ct. 882,319 U.S. 157,146 A.L.R. 81,87 L.Ed. 1324
Decision Date03 May 1943
Docket NumberNos. 450,480,s. 450
PartiesRobert L. DOUGLAS, Albert R. Gundecker, Earl Kalkbrenner, et al., Petitioners, v. CITY of JEANNETTE (PENNSYLVANIA), a Municipal Corporation, et al. Robert MURDOCK, Jr., Petitioner, v. COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA (City of Jeannette), and seven other cases. Thelma MARTIN, Appellant, v. CITY OF STRUTHERS, OHIO. —487, 238
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

For majority opinions, see 63 S.Ct. 877, 870, 862.

[Syllabus from pages 157-159 intentionally omitted] Mr. Hayden C. Covington, of Brooklyn, N.Y., for petitioner.

Mr. Fred B. Trescher, of Greensburg, Pa., for respondents.

Mr. Chief Justice STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners brought this suit in the United States District Court for Western Pennsylvania to restrain threatened criminal prosecution of them in the state courts by respondents, the City of Jeannette (a Pennsylvania municipal corporation) and its Mayor, for violation of a city ordinance which prohibits the solicitation of orders for merchandise without first procuring a license from the city authorities and paying a license tax. The ordinance as applied is held to be an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech, press and religion in Nos. 480-487, Murdock et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 319 U.S. 105, 63 S.Ct. 870, 87 L.Ed. —-, decided this day. The questions decisive of the present case are whether the district court has statutory jurisdiction as a federal court to entertain the suit, and whether petitioners have by their pleadings and proof established a cause of action in equity.

The case is not one of diversity of citizenship, since some of the petitioners, like respondents, are citizens of Pennsylvania. The bill of complaint alleges that the named plaintiffs are Jehovah's Witnesses, persons who entertain religious beliefs and engage in religious practices which it describes; that the suit is a class suit brought in petitioner's own behalf and in behalf of all other Jehovah's Witnesses in Pennsylvania and adjoining states to restrain respondents from enforcing ordinance No. 60 of the City of Jeannette against petitioners and all other Jehovah's Witnesses because, as applied to them, the ordinance abridges the guaranties of freedom of speech, press, and religion of the First Amendment made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth.

The suit is alleged to arise under the Constitution and laws of the United States, including the Civil Rights Act of 1871, 17 Stat. 13. The complaint sets up that in the practice of their religion and in conformity to the teachings of the Bible, Jehovah's Witnesses make, and for many years have made, house to house distribution, among the people of the City of Jeannette, of certain printed books and pamphlets setting forth the Jehovah's Witnesses' interpretations of the teachings of the Bible. Municipal Ordinance No. 60 provides: 'That all persons canvassing or soliciting within said Borough (now City of Jeannette) orders for goods * * * wares or merchandise of any kind, or persons delivering such articles under orders so obtained or solicited' without first procuring a license and paying prescribed license taxes, shall be punished by fine not exceeding $100 and costs, or if the fine is not paid, by imprisonment from five to thirty days. It is alleged that in April, 1939, respondents arrested and prosecuted petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses for violation of the ordinance because of their described activities in distributing religious literature, without the permits required by the ordinance, and that respondents threaten to continue to enforce the ordinance by arrests and prosecutions—all in violation of petitioners' civil rights.

No preliminary or interlocutory injunction was granted but the district court, after a trial, held the ordinance invalid, 39 F.Supp. 32, on the authority of Reid v. Borough of Brookville, 39 F.Supp. 30, in that it deprived petitioners of the rights of freedom of press and religion guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The court enjoined respondents from enforcing the ordinance against petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sustained the jurisdiction of the district court, but reversed on the merits, 130 F.2d 652, on the authority of Jones v. Opelika, 316 U.S. 584, 62 S.Ct. 1231, 86 L.Ed. 1691, 141 A.L.R. 514. One judge dissented on the ground that the complaint did not sufficiently allege a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment so as to entitle petitioners to relief under the Civil Rights Act. We granted certiorari, 318 U.S. 749, 63 S.Ct. 660, 87 L.Ed. —-, and set the case for argument with Nos. 480—487, Murdock et al. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, supra.

We think it plain that the district court had jurisdiction as a federal court to hear and decide the question of the constitutional validity of the ordinance, although there was no allegation or proof that the matter in controversy exceeded $3,000. By 8 U.S.C. § 43, 8 U.S.C.A. § 43 (derived from § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of April 20, 1871, 17 Stat. 13, continued without substantial change as R.S. § 1979) it is provided that 'every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress'.

As we held in hague v. C.I.O., 307 U.S. 496, 507—514, 527 532, 59 S.Ct. 954, 960—963, 969—971, 83 L.Ed. 1423, the district courts of the United States are given jurisdiction by 28 U.S.C. § 41(14), 28 U.S.C.A. § 41(14), over suits brought under the Civil Rights Act without the allegation or proof of any jurisdictional amount. Not only do petitioners allege that the present suit was brought under the Civil Rights Act, but their allegations plainly set out an infringement of its provisions. In substance, the complaint alleges that respondents, proceeding under the challenged ordinance, by arrest, detention and by criminal prosecutions of petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses, had subjected them to deprivation of their rights of freedom of speech, press and religion secured by the Constitution, and the complaint seeks equitable relief from such deprivation in the future.

The particular provision of the Constitution on which petitioners rely is the Due Process Clause of the Four- teenth Amendment, violation of which the dissenting judge below thought was not sufficiently alleged to establish a basis for relief under the Civil Rights Act. But we think this overlooks the special relationship of the Fourteenth Amendment to the rights of freedom of speech, press, and religion guaranteed by the First. We have repeatedly held that the Fourteenth Amendment has made applicable to the states the guaranties of the First. Schneider v. State, 308 U.S. 147, 160, note 8, 60 S.Ct. 146, 150, 84 L.Ed. 155, and cases cited; Jamison v. Texas, 318 U.S. 413, 63 S.Ct. 669, 87 L.Ed. —-. Allegations of fact sufficient to show deprivation of the right of free speech under the First Amendment are sufficient to establish deprivation of a constitutional right guaranteed by the Fourteenth, and to state a cause of action under the Civil Rights Act, whenever it appears that the abridgment of the right is effected under color of a state statute or ordinance. It follows that the bill, which amply alleges the facts relied on to show the abridgment by criminal proceedings under the ordinance, sets out a case or controversy which is within the adjudicatory power of the district court.

Notwithstanding the authority of the district court, as a federal court, to hear and dispose of the case, petitioners are entitled to the relief prayed only if they establish a cause of action in equity. Want of equity jurisdiction, while not going to the power of the court to decide the cause, Di Giovanni v. Camden Fire Ins. Ass'n, 296 U.S. 64, 69, 56 S.Ct. 1, 3, 80 L.Ed. 47; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Williams, 294 U.S. 176, 181, 182, 55 S.Ct. 380, 383, 79 L.Ed. 841, 96 A.L.R. 1166, may nevertheless, in the discretion of the court, be objected to on its own motion. Twist v. Prairie Oil Co., 274 U.S. 684, 690, 47 S.Ct. 755, 757, 71 L.Ed. 1297; Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Williams, supra, 294 U.S. at page 185, 55 S.Ct. at page 385, 79 L.Ed. 841, 96 A.L.R. 1166. Especially should it do so where its powers are invoked to interfere by injunction with threatened criminal prosecutions in a state court.

The power reserved to the states under the Constitution to provide for the determination of controversies in their courts may be restricted by federal district courts only in obedience to Congressional legislation in conformity to the Judiciary Article of the Constitution. Congress, by its legislation, has adopted the policy, with certain well defined statutory exceptions, of leaving generally to the state courts the trial of criminal cases arising under state laws, subject to review by this Court of any federal questions involved. Hence, courts of equity in the exercise of their discretionary powers should conform to this policy by refusing to interfere with or embarrass threatened proceedings in state courts save in those exceptional cases which call for the interposition of a court of equity to prevent irreparable injury which is clear and imminent; and equitable remedies infringing this independence of the states though they might otherwise be given—should be withheld if sought on slight or inconsequential grounds. Di Giovanni v. Camden Ins. Fire Ass'n, supra, 296 U.S. at page 73, 56 S.Ct. at page 5, 80 L.Ed. 47; Matthews v. Rodgers, 284 U.S. 521,...

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