Radio Station Wow v. Johnson

Decision Date18 June 1945
Docket NumberNo. 593,593
Citation326 U.S. 120,65 S.Ct. 1475,89 L.Ed. 2092
PartiesRADIO STATION WOW, Inc., et al. v. JOHNSON
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 19 N.W.2d 853.

Mr. James Lawrence Fly, of New York City, for petitioners.

Mr. Don W. Stewart, of Lincoln, Neb., for respondent.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the relation of the Federal Communications Act, 48 Stat. 1064, 47 U.S.C. § 151 et seq., 47 U.S.C.A. § 151 et seq., to the power of a State to adjudicate conflicting claims to the property used by a licensed radio station. At the outset, however, our right to review the decision below is seriously challenged.

The facts relevant to the jurisdictional problem as well as to the main issues are these, summarized as briefly as accuracy permits. Petitioner, Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society, a fraternal benefit association of Nebraska, owns radio station WOW. The Society leased this station for fifteen years to petitioner, Radio Station WOW, Inc., a Nebraska corporation formed to operate the station as lessee. After the Society and the lessee had jointly applied to the Federal Communications Commission for consent to transfer the station license, Johnson, the respondent, a member of the Society, filed this suit to have the lease and the assignment of the license set aside for fraud. While this suit was pending, the Federal Communications ommission consented to assignment of the license, and the Society transferred both the station properties and the license to the lessee. Thereafter the Society answered that 'the Federal Communications Commission * * * has and concedes that it has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of plaintiff's action, except jurisdiction to determine the transfer of the license to operate said radio station, which jurisdiction after full and complete showing and notwithstanding objections filed thereto, was exercised in the approval of the transfer of said license to the defendant Radio Station WOW, Inc. and further order to the Society to execute and perform the provisions of said lease by virtue of which the possession of said lease property has now been delivered to the lessee, all as more particularly herein found.' Respondent's reply admitted 'that the Federal Communications Commission has and concedes that it has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of plaintiff's action except jurisdiction to determine the transfer of the license to operate said radio station.' The trial court found no fraud and dismissed the suit.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska, three Judges dissenting, reversed and entered judgment for respondent, directing that the lease and license be set aside and that the original position of the parties be restored as nearly as possible. 144 Neb. 406, 13 N.W.2d 556. The judgment further ordered that an accounting be had of the operation of the station by the lessee since it came into its possession and that the income less operating expenses be returned to the Society.1 On motions for rehearing the petitioners asserted that only the Federal Communications Commission and the federal courts had jurisdiction over the subject matter, not the Nebraska courts. These motions were denied in an opinion in which the Nebraska Supreme Court stated, 'We conclude at the outset that the power to license a radio station, or to transfer, assign or annul such a license, is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. * * * The effect of our former opinion was to vacate the lease of the radio station and to order a return of the property to its former status, the question of the federal license being a question solely for the Federal Communications Commission. Our former opinion should be so construed.' The claim that the Nebraska courts had no jurisdiction over the subject matter of the action was thus dealt with: 'The fact that the property involved was used in a licensed business was an incident to the suit only. The answer of the defendants, heretofore quoted, squarely contradicts the position they now endeavor to assume. Their position is unsound on its merits and, in addition thereto, it was eliminated from the case by the pleadings they filed in their own behalf.' 144 Neb. 432, 14 N.W.2d 666, 668. Because of the importance of the contention that the State court's decision had invaded the domain of the Federal Communications Commission, we granted certiorari. In the order allowing certiorari we directed attention to the questions whether the judgment is a final one and whether the federal questions raised by the petition for certiorari are properly presented by the record. 323 U.S. 705, 65 S.Ct. 276.

Since its establishment, it has been a marked characteristic of the federal judicial system not to permit an appeal until a litigation has been concluded in the court of first instance. See Heike v. United States, 217 U.S 423, 30 S.Ct. 539, 54 L.Ed. 821; Cobbledick v. United States, 309 U.S. 323, 60 S.Ct. 540, 84 L.Ed. 783; Catlin v. United States, 324 U.S. 229, 65 S.Ct. 631. This requirement has the support of considerations generally applicable to good judicial administration. It avoids the mischief of economic waste and of delayed justice. Only in very few situations, where intermediate rulings may carry serious public consequences, has there been a departure from this requirement of finality for federal appellate jurisdiction. This prerequisite to review derives added force when the jurisdiction of this Court is invoked to upset the decision of a State court. Here we are in the realm of potential conflict between the courts of two different governments. And so, ever since 1789, Congress has granted this Court the power to intervene in State litigation only after 'the highest court of a State in which a decision in the suit could be had' has rendered a 'final judgment or decree.' Section 237(a) of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 344(a), 28 U.S.C.A. § 344(a). This requirement is not one of those technicalities to be easily scorned. It is an important factor in the smooth working of our federal system.

But even so circumscribed a legal concept as appealable finality has a penumbral area. The problem of determining when a litigation is concluded so as to be 'final' to permit review here arises in this case because, as has been indicated, the Nebraska Supreme Court not only directed a transfer of property, but also ordered an accounting of profits from such property. Considerations of English usage as well as those of judicial policy would readily justify an interpretation of 'final judgment' so as to preclude reviewability here where anything further remains to be determined by a State court no matter how dissociated from the only federal issue that has finally been adjudicated by the highest court of the State. Specifically, it might well be held that, even though definitive rulings on questions otherwise reviewable here have been made below, such rulings cannot be brought here for review if the State court calls for the ascertainment by a master or a lower State court of an account upon which a further decree is to be entered. See California National Bank v. Stateler, 171 U.S. 447, 449, 19 S.Ct. 6, 7, 43 L.Ed. 233; Boskey, Finality of State Court Judgments under the Federal Judicial Code (1943) 43 Col.L.Rev. 1002, 1009; Robertson and Kirkham, Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (1936) p. 58.

Unfortunately, however, the course of our jurisdictional history has not run as smoothly as such a mechanical rule would make it. To enforce it now, or to pronounce it for the future, would involve disregard of at least two controlling precedents, both of them expressing the views of unanimous courts and one of which has stood on our books for nearly a hundred years in an opinion carrying the authority, especially weighty in such matters, of Chief Justice Taney. Leaving to a footnote the details of a somewhat sinuous story, 2 it suffices to say that Forgay v Conrad, 6 How. 201, 12 L.Ed. 404, and Carondelet Canal Co. v. Louisiana, 233 U.S. 362, 34 S.Ct. 627, 58 L.Ed. 1001, found the requirement of finality to be satisfied by judgments the characteristics of which cannot be distinguished from those presented by the Nebraska decree. In short, the rationale of those cases is that a judgment directing immediate delivery of physical property is reviewable and is to be deemed dissociated from a provision for an accounting even though that is decreed in the same order. In effect, such a controversy is a multiple litigation allowing review of the adjudication which is concluded because it is independent of, and unaffected by, another litigation with which it happens to be entangled. Compare Clark v. Williard, 292 U.S. 112, 117-119, 54 S.Ct. 615, 617, 618, 78 L.Ed. 1160; and see Note (1934) 48 Harv.L.Rev. 302.

The presupposition in allowing such review is that the federal questions that could come here have been adjudicated by the State court and that the accounting which remains to be taken could not remotely give rise to a federal question. Of course, where the remaining litigation may raise other federal questions that may later come here, such as is true of eminent domain cases, see Grays Harbor Co. v. Coats-Fordney Co., 243 U.S. 251, 37 S.Ct. 295, 61 L.Ed. 702, to allow review of an intermediate adjudication would offend the decisive objection to fragmentary reviews. Since, by awarding an execution, the Nebraska Supreme Court directed immediate possession of the property to be transferred, the case comes squarely within Forgay v. Conrad, supra, and Carondelet Canal Co. v. Louisiana, supra, and the challenge to our jurisdiction cannot be sustained.

This brings us to consider what federal questions are here. The court below decreed the transfer of property used as a radio station. It conceded that it had no jurisdiction over the transfer of the license under which WOW was...

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