National Association For Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama Flowers

Decision Date01 June 1964
Docket NumberNo. 169,169
Citation12 L.Ed.2d 325,377 U.S. 288,84 S.Ct. 1302
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Robert L. Carter, New York City, for petitioner.

Gordon, Madison, Montgomery, Ala., for respondent.

Mr. Justice HARLAN, delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case, involving the right of the petitioner, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to carry on activities in Alabama, reaches this Court for the fourth time. In 956 the Attorney General of Alabama brought a suit in equity to oust the association, a New York 'membership' corporation, from the State. The basis of the proceeding was the Association's alleged failure to comply with Alabama statutes requiring foreign corporations to register with the Alabama Secretary of State and perform other acts in order to qualify to do business in the State;1 the complaint alleged also that certain of the petitioner's activities in Alabama, detailed below, were inimical to the well-being of citizens of the State.

On the day the complaint was filed, the Attorney General obtained an ex parte restraining order barring the Association, pendente lite, from conducting any business within the State and from taking any steps to qualify to do business under state law. Before the case was heard on the merits, the Association was adjudged in contempt for failing to comply with a court order directing it to produce various records, including membership lists. The Supreme Court of Alabama dismissed a petition for certiorari to review the final judgment of contempt on procedural grounds, 265 Ala. 349, 91 So.2d 214, which this Court, on review, found inadequate to bar consideration of the Association's constitutional claims. N.A.A.C.P. v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 78 S.Ct. 1163, 2 L.Ed.2d 1488. Upholding those claims, we reversed the judgment of contempt without reaching the question of the validity of the underlying restraining order.

In the second round of these proceedings the Supreme Court of Alabama, on remand 'for proceedings not inconsistent' with this Court's opinion, 357 U.S. at 467, 78 S.Ct., at 1174, again affirmed the judgment of contempt which this Court had overturned. 268 Ala. 531, 109 So.2d 138. This decision was grounded on belief that this Court's judgment had rested on a 'mistaken premise.' Id., 268 Ala., at 532, 109 So.2d, at 139. Observing that the premise of our prior decision had been one which the State had 'plainly accepted' throughout the prior proceedings here, this Court ruled that the State could not, for the first time on remand, change its stance. 360 U.S. 240, 243, 79 S.Ct. 1001, 1003, 1004, 3 L.Ed.2d 1205. We noted that the Supreme Court of Alabama 'evidently was not ac- quainted with the detailed basis of the proceedings here' when it reaffirmed the judgment of contempt, Id., 360 U.S. at 243—244, 79 S.Ct. at 1004, and again remanded without considering the validity of the restraining order. In so doing, the Court said: 'We assume that the State Supreme Court * * * will not fail to proceed promptly with the disposition of the matters left open under our mandate for further proceedings * * *.' rendered in the prior case. Id., 360 U.S. at 245, 79 S.Ct. at 1004.

Our second decision was announced on June 8, 1959. Unable to obtain a hearing on the merits in the Alabama courts, the Association, in June 1960, commenced proceedings in the United States District Court to obtain a hearing there. Alleging that the restraining order and the failure of the Alabama courts to afford it a hearing on the validity of the order were depriving it of constitutional rights, the Association sought to enjoin enforcement of the order. Without passing on the merits, the District Court dismissed the action, because it would not assume that the executive and judicial officers of Alabama involved in the litigation would fail to protect 'the constitutional rights of all citizens'. N.A.A.C.P. v. Gallion, D.C., 190 F.Supp. 583, 586. The Court of Appeals agreed that the matter 'should be litigated initially in the courts of the State.' 5 Cir., 290 F.2d 337, 343. It, however, vacated the judgment below and remanded the case to the District Court, with instructions 'to permit the issues presented to be determined with expedition in the State courts,' but to retain jurisdiction and take steps necessary to protect the Association's right o be heard on its constitutional claims. Ibid.

The jurisdiction of this Court was invoked a third time. On October 23, 1961, we entered an order as follows:

'* * * The judgment below is vacated, and the case is remanded to the Court of Appeals with instructions to direct the District Court to proceed with the trial of the issues in this action unless within a reasonable time, no later than January 2, 1962, the State of Alabama shall have accorded to petitioner an opportunity to be heard on its motion to dissolve the state restraining order of June 1, 1956, and upon the merits of the action in which such order was issued. Pending the final determination of all proceedings in the state action, the District Court is authorized to retain jurisdiction over the federal action and to take such steps as may appear necessary and appropriate to assure a prompt disposition of all issues involved in, or connected with, the state action. * * *' 368 U.S. 16—17, 82 S.Ct. 4, 7 L.Ed.2d 85.

In December 1961, more than five years after it was 'temporarily' ousted from Alabama, the Association obtained a hearing on the merits in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, the court which had issued the restraining order in 1956. On December 29, 1961,2 the Circuit Court entered a final decree in which the court found that the Association had continued to do business in Alabama 'in violation of the Constitution and laws of the state relating to foreign corporations' and that the Association's activities in the State were 'in violation of other laws of the State of Alabama and are and have been a usurpation and abuse of its corporate functions and detrimental to the State of Alabama. * * *' The decree permanently enjoined the Association and those affiliated with it from doing 'any further business of any description or kind' in Alabama and from attempting to qualify to do business there. The Association appealed to the Supreme Court of Alabama, which, on February 28, 1963, affirmed the judgment below without considering the merits. 274 Ala. 544, 150 So.2d 677. The Supreme Court relied wholly on procedural grounds, detailed more fully below. This Court again granted certiorari, 375 U.S. 810, 84 S.Ct. 52, 11 L.Ed.2d 47.


We consider first the nonfederal basis of the decision of the Alabama Supreme Court, which is asserted by the State as

In its Assignment of Errors to the Supreme Court of Alabama, the Association specified 23 claimed errors in the proceedings in the trial court.3 Each claim of error was separately numbered and set off in a separate paragraph. Most of the claims alleged that the error involved deprived the Association and those connected with it of rights protected by the Federal Constitution. The brief filed by the Association in the State Supreme Court is divided into four sections: 'Statement of Case,' 'Statement of Facts,' 'Propositions of Law' (containing 15 separately numbered and paragraphed propositions of law, with a separate list of cases supporting each), and 'Argument.'4 The 'Argument' section is subdivided into five parts by Roman numerals unaccompanied by any headings. There is a specific reference in the 'Argument' to each assignment of error on which the Association relied.5 Only one assignment of error is mentioned more than once; that assignment is mentioned twice, both times in connection with the same substantive issue. In only two paragraphs is there a reference to more than one assigned error, one paragraph including a discussion of two related assignments and another including a discussion of four related assignments.

The brief is reproduced in Appendix B to the petition for certiorari in this Court; the accuracy of the reproduction is not questioned by the State.

The Supreme Court of Alabama based its decision entirely on the asserted failure of the Association's brief to conform to rules of the court. Although it referred to Rule 9 of its Rules, which concerns the form of an appellant's brief,6 the Supreme Court gave no indication of any respect in which the Association's brief fell short of the requirements of that Rule, and appears to have placed no reliance on it at all. See 274 Ala., at 546, 150 So.2d at 679. The basis of the decision below was rather 'a rule of long standing and frequent application that where unrelated assignments of error are argued together and one is without merit, the others will not be considered.' Ibid. Proceeding to apply that rule to the Association's brief, the Supreme Court held that at least one of the assignments of error contained in each of the five numbered subdivisions of the 'Argument' section of the brief was without merit, and that it would therefore not consider the merit of any of the other assignments.7 The Attorney General of Alabama argues that this is a non-federal ground of decision adequate to bar review in this Court of the serious constitutional claims which the Association presents. We find this position wholly unacceptable.

Paying full respect to the state court's opinion, it seems to us crystal clear that the rule invoked by it cannot reasonably be deemed applicable to this case. In its brief, the Association referred to each of its assignments of error separately, and specified the argument pertaining thereto. A separate paragraph was devoted to each of the assignments of error except, as noted above, for two related assignments included in one paragraph and four other related assignments included...

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