Harman v. Forssenius, No. 360

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWARREN
Citation85 S.Ct. 1177,380 U.S. 528,14 L.Ed.2d 50
Decision Date27 April 1965
Docket NumberNo. 360
PartiesA. M. HARMAN, Jr., et al., Appellants, v. Lars FORSSENIUS et al

380 U.S. 528
85 S.Ct. 1177
14 L.Ed.2d 50
A. M. HARMAN, Jr., et al., Appellants,

v.

Lars FORSSENIUS et al.

No. 360.
Argued March 1 and 2, 1965.
Decided April 27, 1965.

Page 529

Joseph C. Carter, Jr., Richmond, Va., for appellants.

H. E. Windener, Jr., Bristol, Va., for appellees.

Harold H. Greene, Washington, D.C., for United States, as amicus curiae, by special leave of Court.

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

We are called upon in this case to construe, for the first time, the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States:

'The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.'

The precise issue is whether § 24—17.2 of the Virginia Code which provides that in order to qualify to vote in federal elections one must either pay a poll tax or file a witnessed or notarized certificate of residence1—contravenes this command.

Page 530

Prior to the adoption of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the Virginia Constitution (Art. II, §§ 18—20) and statutes (Va.Code Ann. §§ 24—17, 24—67 (1950)) established uniform standards for qualification for voting in both federal and state elections. The requirements were: (1) United States citizenship; (2) a minimum age of twenty-one; (3) residence in the State for one year, in the city or county for six months, and in the voting precinct for thirty days; and (4) payment 'at least six months prior to any election * * * to the proper officer all State

Page 531

poll taxes ($1,50 annually) assessed or assessable against him for three years next preceding * * * such election.' 2 The statutes further provided for permanent registration.3 Once registered, the voters could qualify for elections in subsequent years merely by paying the poll taxes.

In 1963, in anticipation of the promulgation of the Twenty-fourth Amendment, the Governor of Virginia convened a special session of the Virginia General Assembly. On November 21 of that year, the General Assembly enacted two Acts 4 designed

'(1) to enable persons to register and vote in federal elections without the payment of poll tax or other tax as required by the 24th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, (2) to continue in effect in all other elections the present registration and voting requirements of the Constitution of Virginia, and (3) to provide methods by which all persons registered to vote in federal or other elections may prove that they meet the residence requirements of § 18 of the Constitution of Virginia.'5

No changes were made with regard to qualification for voting in state elections. With regard to federal elections, however, the payment of a poll tax as an absolute prerequisite to registration and voting was eliminated,

Page 532

and a provision was added requiring the federal voter to file a certificate of residence in each election year or, at his option, to pay the customary poll taxes. The statute provides that the certificate of residence must be filed no earlier than October 1 of the year immediately preceding that in which the voter desires to vote and not later than six months prior to the election. The voter must state in the certificate (which must be notarized or witnessed) his present address, that he is currently a resident of Virginia, that he has been a resident since the date of his registration, and that he does not presently intend to remove from the city or county of which he is a resident prior to the next general election. Va.Code Ann. § 24—17.2 (1964 Supp.). Thus, as a result of the 1963 Acts, a citizen after registration may vote in both federal and state elections upon the payment of all assessable poll taxes. Va.Code Ann. § 24—17 (1964 Supp.). If he has not paid such taxes he cannot vote in state elections, and may vote in federal elections only upon filing a certificate of residence in each election year. Va.Code Ann. §§ 24—17.1, 24—17.2 (1964 Supp.).

The present appeal originated as two separate class actions, brought by appellees in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, attacking the foregoing provisions of the 1963 Virginia legislation as violative of Art. I, § 2, of the Constitution of the United States, and the Fourteenth, Seventeenth, and Twenty-fourth Amendments thereto. The complaints, which prayed for declaratory and injunctive relief, named as defendants (appellants here) the three members of the Virginia State Board of Elections and, in one case, the County Treasurer of Roanoke County, Virginia, and, in the other, the Director of Finance of Fairfax County. The jurisdiction of the District Court was invoked pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, 2201 (1958 ed.), and

Page 533

a court of three judges was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 2281, 2284 (1958 ed.).

The District Court denied the State's motion to stay the proceedings in order to give the Virginia courts an opportunity to resolve the issues and interpret the statutes involved. The court further denied the State's motions to dismiss for failure to join indispensable parties, for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, and for want of a justiciable controversy.6 On the merits, the District Court held that the certificate of residence requirement was 'a distinct qualification' or at least an 'increase (in) the quantum of necessary proof of residence' imposed solely on the federal voter, and that it therefore violated Art. I, § 2, and the Seventeenth Amendment, which provide that electors choosing a Representative or Senator in the Congress of the United States 'shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislature.' The court rejected the argument that the residency certificate was merely a method, like the poll tax, of proving the residence qualification which is imposed on both federal and state voters. Accordingly, the District Court entered an order declaring invalid the portions of the 1963 Virginia legislation which required the filing of a certificate of residence and enjoining appellants from requiring compliance by a voter with said portions of the 1963 Acts. We noted probable jurisdiction. 379 U.S. 810, 85 S.Ct. 83, 13 L.Ed.2d 25.

We hold that § 24—17.2 is repugnant to the Twenty-fourth Amendment and affirm the decision of the District

Page 534

Court on that basis. We therefore find it unnecessary to determine whether that section violates Art. I, § 2, and the Seventeenth Amendment.

I.

At the outset, we are faced with the State's contention that the District Court should have stayed the proceedings until the courts of Virginia had been afforded a reasonable opportunity to pass on underlying issues of state law and to construe the statutes involved. We hold that the District Court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to postpone the exercise of its jurisdiction.

In applying the doctrine of abstention, a federal district court is vested with discretion to decline to exercise or to postpone the exercise of its jurisdiction in deference to state court resolution of underlying issues of state law. Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496, 61 S.Ct. 643, 85 L.Ed. 971.7 Where resolution of the federal constitutional question is dependent upon, or may be materially altered by, the determination of an uncertain issue of state law, abstention may be proper in order to avoid unnecessary friction in federalstate relations, interference with important state functions, tentative decisions on questions of state law, and premature constitutional adjudication. E.g., Railroad Comm'n of Texas v. Pullman Co., supra. The doctrine, however, contemplates that deference to state court adjudication only be made where the issue of state law is uncertain. Davis v. Mann, 377 U.S. 678, 690, 84 S.Ct. 1441, 1447, 12 L.Ed.2d 609; McNeese v. Board of Education, 373 U.S. 668, 673 674, 83 S.Ct. 1433, 1436—1437, 10 L.Ed.2d 622; City of Chicago v. Atchison, T. & S.F.R. Co., 357 U.S. 77, 84, 78 S.Ct. 1063, 1067, 2 L.Ed.2d 1174.8 If the state statute

Page 535

in question, although never interpreted by a state tribunal, is not fairly subject to an interpretation which will render unnecessary or substantially modify the federal constitutional question, it is the duty of the federal court to exercise its properly invoked jurisdiction. Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360, 375—379, 84 S.Ct. 1316, 1324—1326, 12 L.Ed.2d 377. Thus, 'recognition of the role of state courts as the final expositors of state law implies no disregard for the primacy of the federal judiciary in deciding questions of federal law.' England v. Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, 375 U.S. 411, 415—416, 84 S.Ct. 461, 465, 11 L.Ed.2d 440.

The state statutes involved here are clear and unambiguous in all material respects.9 While the State suggests that the Virginia tribunals are 'unquestionably far better equipped than the lower (federal) court to unravel the skeins of local law and administrative practices in which the Appellees' claims are entangled,'10 the State

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does not point to any provision in the legislation which leaves '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.' Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167, 177, 79 S.Ct. 1025, 1030, 3 L.Ed.2d 1152.

In spite of the clarity of the 1963 legislation, the State argues that the District Court should have abstained on the ground that if the certificate of residence requirement were found to be a qualification distinct from those specified in the Virginia Constitution, it...

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472 practice notes
  • Ingebretsen v. Jackson Public School Dist., No. 3:94-cv-411WS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Mississippi
    • September 2, 1994
    ...or materially alter the federal constitutional question.'" Martinez, 416 U.S. at 402-03, 94 S.Ct. at 1806 (quoting Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 1181, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965)). First, we are not faced with such a situation here. We do not have here "an uncertain issue......
  • Harris v. Ariz. Indep. Redistricting Comm'n, No. CV–12–894–PHX–ROS–NVW–RRC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Arizona
    • April 29, 2014
    ...389 U.S. at 252, 88 S.Ct. 391. Delay caused by abstention is especially problematic in voting rights cases. Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 537, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965). The Ninth Circuit noted in a redistricting case that due to the “special dangers of delay, courts have be......
  • Mahaley v. Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, Civ. A. No. C 71-251
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio
    • February 22, 1973
    ...Board of Elections, 360 U.S. 45, 79 S.Ct. 985, 3 L.Ed.2d 1072; and with voting fees and these were struck down, Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 543, 544, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L. Ed.2d 50 (1965); and with gerrymandering and this was struck down, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339, 81 S.Ct......
  • Serpas v. Schmidt, No. 85-2393
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • July 17, 1987
    ...improper because state law not susceptible of an interpretation that might avoid constitutional adjudication); Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534-35, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 1182, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965) (same); Board of Education v. Bosworth, 713 F.2d 1316, 1321 (7th Cir.1983) It might be argued ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
472 cases
  • Ingebretsen v. Jackson Public School Dist., No. 3:94-cv-411WS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Mississippi
    • September 2, 1994
    ...or materially alter the federal constitutional question.'" Martinez, 416 U.S. at 402-03, 94 S.Ct. at 1806 (quoting Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 1181, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965)). First, we are not faced with such a situation here. We do not have here "an uncertain issue......
  • Harris v. Ariz. Indep. Redistricting Comm'n, No. CV–12–894–PHX–ROS–NVW–RRC.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. District of Arizona
    • April 29, 2014
    ...389 U.S. at 252, 88 S.Ct. 391. Delay caused by abstention is especially problematic in voting rights cases. Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 537, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965). The Ninth Circuit noted in a redistricting case that due to the “special dangers of delay, courts have be......
  • Mahaley v. Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, Civ. A. No. C 71-251
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio
    • February 22, 1973
    ...Board of Elections, 360 U.S. 45, 79 S.Ct. 985, 3 L.Ed.2d 1072; and with voting fees and these were struck down, Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 543, 544, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 14 L. Ed.2d 50 (1965); and with gerrymandering and this was struck down, Gomillion v. Lightfoot, 364 U.S. 339, 81 S.Ct......
  • Serpas v. Schmidt, No. 85-2393
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • July 17, 1987
    ...improper because state law not susceptible of an interpretation that might avoid constitutional adjudication); Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528, 534-35, 85 S.Ct. 1177, 1182, 14 L.Ed.2d 50 (1965) (same); Board of Education v. Bosworth, 713 F.2d 1316, 1321 (7th Cir.1983) It might be argued ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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