Gay v. Board of Registration Commissioners, 72-1157.

Citation466 F.2d 879
Decision Date29 August 1972
Docket NumberNo. 72-1157.,72-1157.
PartiesMarva GAY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. BOARD OF REGISTRATION COMMISSIONERS et al., Defendants-Appellees.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)


Robert A. Sedler, Lexington, Ky., for plaintiff-appellant; Donna Morton Maier, Louisville, Ky., on brief.

Frank Logan, Asst. Director of Law, City of Louisville Law Dept., Louisville, Ky., for defendants-appellees.

Before CELEBREZZE and MILLER, Circuit Judges, and THOMAS, District Judge.*

WILLIAM E. MILLER, Circuit Judge.

The appellant Marva Gay, a permanent resident of Louisville, Kentucky, instituted the present class action on October 19, 1971 against the Board of Registration Commissioners in the District Court for the Western District of Kentucky challenging the constitutionality of Kentucky Revised Statutes § 117.735(1).1 This statute requires any voter in a first class city2 who changes his name by marriage or otherwise to re-register in order to vote in future elections. The appellant after her marriage was purged from the voting rolls and failed to re-register before the registration deadline for the November, 1971 election had expired. Appellant's theory is that the statute discriminates against women because of their sex in violation of the Fourteenth and Nineteenth Amendments. After a preliminary hearing the court allowed the appellant to amend her complaint to request that a three-judge panel be convened under 28 U.S.C. § 22813 but denied the preliminary injunction to permit her to vote in the November, 1971 election. On December 29, 1971 the lower court found that the action was not a proper one for a three-judge panel. He then dismissed the complaint for failure of appellant to exhaust state remedies.

The appellant married in June, 1971 but did not re-register to vote in the surname of her husband, although taking his name for other purposes. On October 1, 1971 she received notice that she was required to re-register to vote for future elections, and that since she had failed to do so, her name had been automatically removed from the voting rolls. Appellant informed the Board that she intended to continue to vote in her former name. When the appellant received notice of her removal from the voting rolls it was already too late to register to vote in the November, 1971 election, the registration books having closed on September 7, 1971. This was 59 days before the election as required by Kentucky Revised Statute, § 117.620.

In the order dismissing the appellant's action the district court relied on two grounds. First, the court held that the convening of a three-judge panel was not proper because the statute in question was of only local application. Second, the court invoked the abstention doctrine, holding that a federal court should abstain from passing on the constitutionality of the statute until a state court had had an opportunity to do so.

The lower court, in our view, was correct in holding that a three-judge panel was not required. Under 28 U.S.C. § 2281 a three-judge panel is required to be convened in any case seeking to enjoin the "enforcement, operation, or execution of any State statute by restraining the action of any officer of such State in the enforcement or execution of such statute . . . ." The purpose of this provision was to prevent a single federal judge from paralyzing a state regulatory scheme and to provide procedural protection against the infliction of "improvident statewide doom" by a federal court on a state legislative policy. Moody v. Flowers, 387 U.S. 97, 87 S.Ct. 1544, 18 L.Ed.2d 643 (1967); Phillips v. United States, 312 U.S. 246, 61 S.Ct. 480, 85 L.Ed. 800 (1940). The statute is not applicable to local ordinances or regulations, Moody v. Flowers, supra; nor does it embrace state statutes having only local application or import, even though administered by state officials. Board of Regents v. New Left Education Project, 404 U.S. 541, 92 S.Ct. 652, 30 L.Ed.2d 697 (1972); Rorick v. Board of Commissioners, 307 U.S. 208, 59 S.Ct. 808, 83 L.Ed. 1242 (1939); Cf., Spielman Motor Sales Co. v. Dodge, 295 U.S. 89, 55 S.Ct. 678, 79 L.Ed. 1322 (1934).

In Board of Regents v. New Left Education Project, supra, the Supreme Court held that a three-judge panel was not properly convened to pass upon the constitutionality of a regulation promulgated by the Board of Regents of the University of Texas, regulating the publication of underground newspapers, because the regulation applied to only three of the state's four-year colleges and universities. In Moody v. Flowers, supra, the Court held that a state statute which established a Board of County Commissioners was local in nature and that a three-judge panel was not required to hear a challenge to it on reapportionment grounds, even though similar systems were established for many counties across the state. Finally in Rorick v. Board of Commissioners, supra, the Court held that a three-judge panel was improperly convened to pass on the constitutionality of a state statute affecting changes in taxes on lands in a particular drainage district, even though the officials were designated as state officers. Cf., Gilhool v. Chairman and Commissioners, Philadelphia County Board of Elections, D.C.Pa., 306 F.Supp. 1202 (1969).

When tested by these standards it is clear that the statute here in question is one of only local application and concern. The statute applies only to voters in cities of the first class. As the city of Louisville alone falls within this classification, the statute does not have statewide application.4 Under the teaching of Rorick and the other cases cited, we hold that the statute is not one within the ambit of 28 U.S.C. § 2281 and that a three-judge panel is not required to pass on its constitutionality.

The district court, however, in our opinion, misapplied the abstention doctrine. In this connection the court stated:

Although it could be argued that a substantial federal constitutional question exists here, the requirement of federal court equity jurisdiction is missing because plaintiffs have failed to exhaust their state court remedies. Moreover no irreparable harm would result from such a course in that the November (1971) General Election is now in the past, and some five months remain before the May (1972) Primary. Whenever such a situation exists, a federal court should invoke the "abstention doctrine" and abstain from passing on the State statute until the State courts have done so.

Abstention is a judicially created doctrine that emerged in Railway Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971 (1940). In that case the Supreme Court held that a federal court in certain narrowly defined "special circumstances" should abstain from exercising equity jurisdiction to enjoin the operation of a state statute. The doctrine was expanded in Harrison v. N.A.A.C.P., 360 U.S. 167, 79 S.Ct. 1025, 3 L.Ed.2d 1152 (1962), in which the Court was faced with a challenge to a Virginia scheme of regulation of organizations which advocated racial integration or segregation, including expenditure of funds for racial litigation. The Court held abstention proper since a limiting construction could be placed on the state statutes by state courts which would avoid deciding constitutional questions. The Court stated:

The present case, in our view, is one which calls for the application of this abstention principle, since we are unable to agree that the terms of these three statutes leave no reasonable room for a construction by the Virginia courts which might avoid in whole or in part the necessity for federal constitutional adjudication, or at least materially change the nature of the problem. 360 U.S. at 177, 79 S.Ct. at 1030.

The foundation of the doctrine of abstention rests on several policy considerations. The first of these is the avoidance of a premature constitutional decision by a possible narrowing construction of the state law by a state court. Lake Carriers' Association v. MacMullan, 406 U.S. 498, 92 S.Ct. 1749, 32 L.Ed.2d 257 (1972); Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965); Cf. Zwickler v. Koota, 389 U.S. 241, 255, 88 S.Ct. 391, 19 L.Ed.2d 444 (1967) (Harlan, J., concurring). A second policy reason underpinning the principle is the avoidance of needless conflict in the federal-state relationship. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S.Ct. 746, 27 L.Ed.2d 669 (1971); Burford v. Sun Oil Co., 319 U.S. 315, 63 S.Ct. 1098, 87 L.Ed. 1424 (1943). A third consideration is the desirability of avoiding the necessity of a federal court making tentative decisions on issues of state law. Reetz v. Bozanich, 397 U.S. 82, 90 S.Ct. 788, 25 L.Ed. 2d 68 (1970); Meredith v. Winter Haven, 320 U.S. 228, 64 S.Ct. 7, 88 L.Ed. 9 (1943). A fourth basic reason justifying abstention is the avoidance of unnecessary interference with state functions or regulatory schemes. Lake Carriers' Association v. MacMullan, supra; Younger v. Harris, supra.

The Supreme Court, however, has made clear that abstention is subject to some notable exceptions. In McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668, 83 S.Ct. 1433, 10 L.Ed.2d 622 (1962), the Court held that abstention is improper if the underlying issue of state law is not controlling in the present litigation, or if the federal right is not "entangled in a skein" of state regulation. In Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 84 S.Ct. 1316, 12 L.Ed.2d 377 (1963), the Court again held abstention improper because a single state litigation could not cure the constitutional infirmities of a state loyalty oath challenged on the grounds of vagueness. Furthermore, abstention is improper if its application would require piecemeal adjudication, causing unnecessary delay in the resolution of constitutional questions.5 England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 84 S.Ct. 461, 11 L.Ed.2d 440 (1963)....

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