Kesler v. Department of Public Safety, Financial Responsibility Division, State of Utah

Citation82 S.Ct. 807,369 U.S. 153,7 L.Ed.2d 641
Decision Date26 March 1962
Docket NumberNo. 14,14
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. E. J. Skeen, Salt Lake City, Utah, for appellant.

Mr. Gordon A. Madsen, Salt Lake City, Utah, for appellee.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents the rather rare claim of conflict between an otherwise valid exercise of a State's so-called police power and the overriding authority of the Bankruptcy Act.1 The statute before us is Utah's Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act2—a measure directed towards promoting safety in automobile traffic by administrative and compensatory remedies calculated to restrain careless driving. Its purpose is wholly unrelated to the purposes of the Bankruptcy Act.

In June 1957, a Utah court entered judgments in damages against appellant, based on his allegedly negli- gent operation of an automobile. On appeal to the State's Supreme Court the judgments were affirmed. After the judgments had remained unpaid for sixty days or more, the judgment creditors requested the court clerk to forward to the Department of Public Safety certified copies of the judgments, as provided by the Safety Responsibility Act. Thereupon the Department suspended appellant's automobile registration and his operator's license. On December 31, 1959, appellant was granted a voluntary discharge in bankruptcy, releasing him from the judgment debts. He then sought restoration of his license and registration. This was denied. The Safety Responsibility Act requires satisfaction of judgments due to auto accidents as a condition of reinstatement and specifically provides that a discharge in bankruptcy shall not relieve the judgment debtor from this requirement. Appellant initiated this ancillary bankruptcy proceeding, Local Loan Co. v. Hunt, 292 U.S. 234, 239, 54 S.Ct. 695, 696, 78 L.Ed. 1230, in the United States District Court for Utah, seeking an order requiring restoration of his privileges and a declaration that the Utah law was invalid insofar as it disrespected the discharge of the judgment debt by virtue of § 17 of the Bankruptcy Act, 11 U.S.C. § 35, 11 U.S.C.A. § 35. A three-judge District Court, 28 U.S.C. § 2281, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2281, upheld the statute and denied relief, 187 F.Supp. 277 (1960). The case was brought here on direct appeal, 28 U.S.C. § 1253, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1253, and we noted probable jurisdiction, 364 U.S. 940, 81 S.Ct. 459, 5 L.Ed.2d 372.

A preliminary point of jurisdiction is noted though it was not adverted to either by the District Court or by the parties. Was this a proper case for convening a three-judge court, as it must have been to justify direct appeal to this Court? The present suit asks that state officials be 'restrained and enjoined' from enforcing designated sections of the Utah Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act because they 'are unconstitutional and void,' in that they are in conflict with § 17 of the Bankruptcy Act and therefore necessarily violative of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution of the United States, Art. VI. It would seem to be compellingly clear that this case falls within § 2281 of Title 28 of the United States Code, 28 U.S.C.A. § 2281, which bars a suit for an injunction 'upon the ground of the unconstitutionality' of a state statute 'unless the application therefor is heard and determined by a district court of three judges.' This was so heard and appeal was properly brought directly here, unless invalidation of a state statute by virtue of the Supremacy Clause rests on a different constitutional basis than such invalidation because of conflict with any other clause of the Constitution, at least to the extent of reading such an implied exception into the procedure devised by § 2281. Neither the language of § 2281 nor the purpose which gave rise to it affords the remotest reason for carving out an unfrivolous claim of unconstitutionality because of the Supremacy Clause from the comprehensive language of § 2281.

Bearing in mind that the requirement for District Court litigation of three judges, of whom one must be a Justice of this Court or a circuit judge, involves a serious drain upon the federal judicial manpower, 'particularly in regions where, despite modern facilities, distance still plays an important part in the effective administration of justice * * *,' this Court has been led by a long series of decisions, in a variety of situations, to generalize that this procedural device was not to be viewed 'as a measure of broad social policy to be construed with great liberality, but as an enactment technical in the strict sense of the term and to be applied as such.' Phillips v. United States, 312 U.S. 246, 250—251, 61 S.Ct. 480, 483, 85 L.Ed. 800. The Court had already held that the three-judge requirement is not to be invoked on a contingent constitutional question. International Ladies' Garment Workers v. Donnelly Co., 304 U.S. 243, 251, 58 S.Ct. 875, 879, 82 L.Ed. 1316. The Court has been consistent in this view in deal- ing with claims of conflict between a state statute and a federal statute which has the constitutional right of way.

Bearing in mind that due regard for the healthy working of the federal judicial system demands that the three-judge court requirement be treated as 'an enactment technical in the strict sense of the term,' we must examine the basis of the plaintiff's claim to determine whether it must come before a single judge or three judges. If in immediate controversy is not the unconstitutionality of a state law but merely the construction of a state law or the federal law, the three-judge requirement does not become operative. Such was the ruling in Ex parte Buder, 271 U.S. 461, 46 S.Ct. 557, 70 L.Ed. 1036, where the Supremacy Clause was not invoked and therefore the three-judge court was not required. In Ex parte Bransford, 310 U.S. 354, 60 S.Ct. 947, 84 L.Ed. 1249, Buder was followed. A three-judge court was not required because the issue was 'merely the construction of an act of Congress, not the constitutionality of the state enactment.' 310 U.S., at 359, 60 S.Ct. at 950. Contrariwise, in Query v. United States, 316 U.S. 486, 62 S.Ct. 1122, 86 L.Ed. 1616, the complainant sought to restrain the state officers from enforcing a state statute on the score of unconstitutionality of its threatened application. 316 U.S., at 489, 62 S.Ct. 1122. Accordingly, the requirement of a three-judge court applied. Query v. United States and Ex parte Bransford were clearly differentiated from one another in Case v. Bowles, 327 U.S. 92, 66 S.Ct. 438, 90 L.Ed. 552, where, as in Bransford, 'the complaint did not challenge the constitutionality of the State statute but alleged merely that its enforcement would violate the Emergency Price Control Act. Consequently a three-judge court is not required.' 327 U.S., at 97, 66 S.Ct. at 441.

Here, no question of statutory construction, either of a state or a federal enactment, is in controversy. We are confronted at once with the constitutional question whether the discharge in bankruptcy of a debt ousts the police power of a State from a relevant safety measure the indirect and episodic consequence of which may have some bearing on a discharged debt but which in no wise resuscitates it as an obligation. The general principle elucidated by Mr. Justice Cardozo in differentiating between different stages of adjudication at which issues are reached, Gully v. First National Bank, 299 U.S. 109, 117—118, 57 S.Ct. 96, 100, 81 L.Ed. 70, serves to guide disposition of this case as it differently did Phillips v. United States, supra. This case presents a sole, immediate constitutional question, differing from Buder, Bransford, and Case, which presented issues of statutory construction even though perhaps eventually leading to a constitutional question.

The problem of highway safety has concerned legislatures since the early years of the century. Utah, like other States, has responded to this problem by requiring the registration3 and inspection4 of vehicles and prescribing certain necessary equipment;5 by requiring examination and licensing of operators and excluding unqualified persons from driving;6 by providing comprehensive regulations of speed and other traffic conditions;7 and by authorizing extraterritorial service of process on nonresident motorists involved in accidents within the State.8 And, like every other State, Utah has responded by enacting a financial-responsibility law.

Financial-responsibility laws are intended to discourage careless driving or to mitigate its consequences by requiring as a condition of licensing or registration the satisfaction of outstanding accident judgments, the posting of security to cover possible liability for a past accident, or the filing of an insurance policy or other proof of ability to respond in damages in the future. By 1915 a San Francisco ordinance required a bond or liability insurance for all buses;9 a number of other cities and States early enacted similar provisions.10 In 1925 Massachusetts forbade the registration of any motor vehicle without proof of adequate liability insurance or other evidence of ability to satisfy a judgment. Mass. Laws 1925, c. 346. That same year the Commissioners on Uniform Laws appointed a committee to consider a uniform compulsory insurance law. Handbook of the National Conference on Uniform State Laws (1932), p. 261.

Unwilling to require insurance or its equivalent from all highway users, six other States—five of them in New England adopted within the next two years laws with the same design but limited to careless drivers. The first of these, Connecticut Acts 1925, c. 183, provided for suspension of the registration of those convicted of certain infractions relating to motor vehicles and of those causing accidents of specified gravity, requiring proof of financial...

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