Sweet Briar Institute v. Button

Decision Date14 July 1967
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 66-C-10-L.
Citation280 F. Supp. 312
PartiesSWEET BRIAR INSTITUTE, Plaintiff, v. Robert Y. BUTTON, Attorney General for the Commonwealth of Virginia, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Virginia

Frank G. Davidson, Jr., Lynchburg, Va., and Thomas S. Currier, Charlottesville, Va., for plaintiff.

Robert Y. Button, Atty. Gen. of Virginia, Richmond, Va., and William M. McClenny, Commonwealth's Atty., Amherst County, Virginia, for defendants.

Before BRYAN, Circuit Judge, and MICHIE and BUTZNER, District Judges.

ALBERT V. BRYAN, Circuit Judge:

On the appeal of Sweet Briar Institute, our order of abstention was reversed by the Supreme Court with directions for consideration of the case on its merits. The present posture of the suit is, then, that it stands sub judice for decision on the original submission. Because our first opinion see Appendix recited the history of the litigation, the material facts and the adversary contentions, we go immediately to the issue at hand: whether the State of Virginia may enforce the provision in the will of the founder of the college restricting enrollment to "white girls and young women".

We conclude it cannot. The State cannot require compliance with the testamentary restriction because that would constitute State action barred by the Fourteenth Amendment. This was the express holding in the Girard case, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Board of Directors of City Trusts, 353 U.S. 230, 77 S.Ct. 806, 1 L.Ed.2d 792 (1957).

A permanent injunction will be issued accordingly.


ALBERT V. BRYAN, Circuit Judge:

A racial restriction limiting the students who could be admitted to Sweet Briar College, Virginia, to "white girls and young women" was imposed by the will of Indiana Fletcher Williams which created the trust whereby the institution was established and has been operated since 1906. The college, now chartered by Virginia as a non-stock, nonprofit corporation and as such a testamentary trustee, brought this suit to have enforcement of the restriction enjoined and the stipulation declared unlawful.

To this end the complaint alleges invalidity in the restriction on the ground that it offends the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a-1 through 2000a-6; and the recent pronouncements of the United States Supreme Court outlawing invidious racial or color distinctions. Further allegations aver serious detriment to the college, both economic and educational, by reason of the racial stipulation.

Defendants to the complaint are the Commonwealth's Attorney of Amherst County, in which the college is located, and the Attorney General of Virginia. They are charged by law with the enforcement of the terms of charitable trusts existing in the State, such as that embodying Sweet Briar College. The complaint prays injunction of these officers from prosecuting any suit to effectuate the restriction.

The Williams will, dated April 3, 1899, was duly probated in Virginia in 1901. It directed the organization of a corporation to receive a devise of large tracts of land and a generous legacy of moneys, constituting the trust estate, as follows:

"The said corporation shall be formed with the object and with the power of establishing and maintaining within the State of Virginia, a school or seminary for the education of white girls and young women * * *.
"2. Immediately upon the formation and organization of such corporation, the said trustees under the will shall grant and convey, and I hereby give and devise, the said * * * property * * * to the said corporation, to have and to hold the same unto it, and its successors forever, upon the conditions and for the purposes hereinafter declared, which it shall accept and assume, namely: the said corporation shall with suitable dispatch establish and shall maintain and carry on upon the said plantation a school or seminary, to be known as the `Sweet Briar Institute', for the education of white girls and young women. It shall be the general scope and object of the school to impart to its students such education in sound learning, and such physical, moral and religious training as shall in the judgment of the directors best fit them to be useful members of society * * *." (Accent added.)

These provisions were carried into the corporate charter.

Before the commencement of this suit the directors of the college adopted resolutions proposing the acceptance of students without reference to race. After submission of the case to the court, Sweet Briar put this policy into effect by matriculating a Negro applicant. It also accepted Federal grants of moneys in the way of scholarships and other aid which are granted only to colleges not maintaining segregation by race or color.

The college's attack, mounted on the Fourteenth Amendment, is pointed at the racial restriction as one permitted and compelled by State action, in that in both aspects it is predicated on the immanent proscriptions of section 55-26, Code of Virginia of 1950. This statute and its predecessors validate charitable trusts for education, which were not permitted prior to this legislative approval. The highest court of Virginia construed this law, in Triplett v. Trotter, 169 Va. 440, 193 S.E. 514 (1937), to mean that an institution so created cannot admit both white and Negro students, but its admissions must be limited exclusively to one or the other race. Another target of attack on the same ground is section 140 of the Virginia Constitution forbidding the education of white and Negro scholars in the same school.

Plaintiff avers that the defendant State officials threaten to employ these racial prohibitions to force Sweet Briar to adhere to the will's racial restriction. The college also alleges that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sections 202 and 203, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000a-1 and 2, precludes the requirement of racial discrimination.

Two years prior to the April 1966 commencement of this suit, the college filed an action against the same defendants in the Circuit Court for Amherst County, asking for judicial guidance of the plaintiff in the administration of its trust when facing both the restriction and its alleged detriment to the success of the college and its ability to achieve the aims of the will. There the plaintiff also attacked the restriction as violative of the Fourteenth Amendment.

At the time the present suit — the Federal case — was begun, the Circuit Court Judge had announced that he would dismiss the case before him because he found no occasion for the suit. The decree followed. However, he allowed the college to amend its complaint, and the cause now stands for hearing on the amendment.

Relying upon the plaintiffs' election to proceed first in the State court, the present pendency of that case and the decision rendered therein, the defendant officials moved for dismissal of the Federal suit, or for abstention here from further proceedings until the college had carried its case through the State courts, trial and appellate. After considering the record and the arguments of counsel, on brief and orally, we have decided to abstain.

This course is dictated first because the law does not allow the prosecution of a second suit after a concomitant suit has been decided. Next, it is dictated by the established principle that the Federal courts should not pass upon controversies primarily dependent for solution upon local law until the State courts have ruled upon them in consideration of the Federal grounds of attack. Thirdly, only through abstention here can the college procure a complete answer to its desire for a judicial ruling upon the present vitality of the restriction.

I. Precedent permits the pendency of two contemporaneous in personam actions between the same parties, one in the State and one in the Federal court, but an adjudication of the same issue in one of them automatically bars the other as res judicata. That Sweet Briar's State suit has already presented the same issues as are tendered now is plain. This is acknowledged by the college in excepting to the State decision on the ground that the State court had not passed on the Federal questions raised in the suit. Particularly, both suits pleaded the Fourteenth Amendment and both were submitted while the Civil Rights Act was in the comprehension of the court and counsel. The State court decision, in effect upholding the racial restriction, was announced almost a year before the Federal suit was filed.

A justification urged for maintenance of the Federal suit is the asserted delay of the State judge in entering a formal decree implementing his decision. However, the necessary order was entered at about the same time as the Federal case was instituted. Moreover, we have no jurisdiction to police a State court in setting down its pronouncements. The remedy for unreasonable delay, if any there be, is well within the powers of the State judiciary.

It is almost cavil to attempt to justify the Federal suit on the assertion that the State court refused or failed to decide the Federal questions. They were all noted, even if not discussed, by the State judge, and the case tendering them was held to be without merit. Right or wrong it was an unequivocal denial of the Federal claims. A direction for dismissal of a complaint is just about the most explicit and definitive determination of the claims therein as is conceivable.

A contrary conclusion cannot succeed because of the absence from the demurrer, on which the State court decided the controversy, of a specific mention of either the Federal Constitution or the Civil Rights Act. In Virginia, as elsewhere generally, a ruling sustaining a demurrer, save when raising only a procedural point, is a decision on the merits. It precludes relitigation of the disputed matters. Not only that, it is conclusive upon any...

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  • Green v. Connally
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Columbia
    • June 30, 1971
    ...discriminatory provisions as written. (1) In some instances, the courts have created new remedies, as in Sweet Briar Institute v. Button, 280 F. Supp. 312 (W.D.Va.1967), where the court enjoined the county and state attorneys from bringing actions under state law to enforce a racially restr......
  • Falwell v. City of Lynchburg, Virginia
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Western District of Virginia
    • February 8, 2002
    ...Plaintiffs cite In re Petition for the Appointment of Church Trustees, 1990 WL 751176, *2 (Va.Cir.Ct.1990) and Sweet Briar Institute v. Button, 280 F.Supp. 312 (W.D.Va.1967) in support of their argument that the Attorney General and the Commonwealth's Attorney (see infra) are proper parties......
  • New Jersey Ed. Ass'n v. Burke
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    ...L.Ed.2d 440 (1964).34 Ohio Bur. of Employment Services v. Hodory, 431 U.S. 471, 479, 97 S.Ct. 1898, 1904, 52 L.Ed.2d 513 (1977).35 Id.36 280 F.Supp. 312, Rev'd 387 U.S. 423, 87 S.Ct. 1710, 18 L.Ed.2d 865 (1967).37 387 U.S. 423, 87 S.Ct. 1710, 18 L.Ed.2d 865 (1967).38 Justices Harlan and Ste......
  • Johnson, Matter of
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    ...(see Shelley v. Kraemer, supra; Barrows v. Jackson, supra; Matter of Hoffman, 53 A.D.2d 55, 385 N.Y.S.2d 49; Sweet Briar Inst. v. Button, 280 F.Supp. 312). Having concluded, then, that the decree here in issue was an unconstitutional exercise of State judicial power, we hold that the approp......
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