United States v. Raines, 64

Decision Date29 February 1960
Docket NumberNo. 64,64
Citation80 S.Ct. 519,4 L.Ed.2d 524,362 U.S. 17
PartiesUNITED STATES, Appellant, v. James Griggs RAINES et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 17-18 intentionally omitted] Attorney General William P. Rogers, Washington, D.C., for appellant.

Mr. Charles J. Bloch, Macon, Ga., for the appellees.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States brought this action in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia against the members of the Board of Registrars and certain Deputy Registrars of Terrell County, Georgia. Its complaint charged that the defendants had through various devices, in the administration of their offices, discriminated on racial grounds against Negroes who desired to register to vote in elections conducted in the State. The complaint sought an injunction against the continuation of these discriminatory practices, and other relief.

The action was founded upon R.S. § 2004, as amended by § 131 of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, 71 Stat. 637, 42 U.S.C. § 1971, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1971. Subsections (a) and (c), which are directly involved, provide:1

'(a) All citizens of the United States who are otherwise qualified by law to vote at any election by the people in any State, Territory, district, county, city, parish, township, school district, municipality, or other territorial subdivision, shall be entitled and allowed to vote at all such elections, without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; any constitution, law, custom, usage, or regulation of any State or Territory, or by or under its authority, to the contrary notwithstanding.

'(c) Whenever any person has engaged or there are reasonable grounds to believe that any person is about to engage in any act or practice which would deprive any other person of any right or privilege secured by subsection (a) * * *, the Attorney General may institute for the United States, or in the name of the United States, a civil action or other proper proceeding for preventive relief, including an application for a permanent or temporary injunction, restraining order, or other order. * * *'

On the defendants' motion, the District Court dismissed the complaint, holding that subsection (c) was unconstitutional. 172 F.Supp. 552. The court held that the statutory language quoted allowed the United States to enjoin purely private action designed to deprive citizens of the right to vote on account of their race or color. Although the complaint in question involved only official action, the court ruled that since, in its opinion, the statute on its face was susceptible of application beyond the scope permissible under the Fifteenth Amendment, it was to be considered unconstitutional in all its applications. The Government appealed directly to this Court and we postponed the question of jurisdiction to the hearing of the case on the merits. 360 U.S. 926, 79 S.Ct. 1448, 3 L.Ed.2d 1541. Under the terms of 28 U.S.C. § 1252, 28 U.S.C.A. § 1252, the case is properly here on appeal since the basis of the decision below in fact was that the Act of Congress was unconstitutional, no matter what the contentions of the parties might be as to what its proper basis should have been.

The very foundation of the power of the federal courts to declare Acts of Congress unconstitutional lies in the power and duty of those courts to decide cases and controversies properly before them. This was made patent in the first case here exercising that power—'the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called on to perform.'2 Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, 177— 180, 2 L.Ed. 60. This Court, as is the case with all federal courts, 'has no jurisdiction to pronounce any statute, either of a state or of the United States, void, because irreconcilable with the constitution, except as it is called upon to adjudge the legal rights of litigants in actual controversies. In the exercise of that jurisdiction, it is bound by two rules, to which it has rigidly adhered: one, never to anticipate a question of constitutional law in advance of the necessity of deciding it; the other, never to formulate a rule of constitutional law broader than is required by the precise facts to which it is to be applied.' Liverpool, New York & Philadelphia S.S. Co. v. Commissioners of Emigration, 113 U.S. 33, 39, 5 S.Ct. 352, 355, 28 L.Ed. 899. Kindred to these rules is the rule that one to whom application of a statute is constitutional will not be heard to attack the statute on the ground that impliedly it might also be taken as applying to other persons or other situations in which its application might be unconstitutional. United States v. Wurzbach, 280 U.S. 396, 50 S.Ct. 167, 74 L.Ed. 508; Heald v. District of Columbia, 259 U.S. 114, 123, 42 S.Ct. 434, 435, 66 L.Ed. 852; Yazoo & Mississippi Valley R. Co. v. .jackson Vinegar Co., 226 U.S. 217, 33 S.Ct. 40, 57 L.Ed. 193; Collins v. State of Texas, 223 U.S. 288, 295—296, 32 S.Ct. 286, 288, 56 L.Ed. 439; People of State of New York ex rel. Hatch v. Reardon, 204 U.S. 152, 160—161, 27 S.Ct. 188, 190—191, 51 L.Ed. 415. Cf. Voeller v. Neilston Warehouse Co., 311 U.S. 531, 537, 61 S.Ct. 376, 379, 85 L.Ed. 322; Carmichael v. Southern Coal & Coke Co., 301 U.S. 495, 513, 57 S.Ct. 868, 874, 81 L.Ed. 1245; Virginian R. Co. v. System Federation, 300 U.S. 515, 558, 57 S.Ct. 592, 605, 81 L.Ed. 789; Blackmer v. United States, 284 U.S. 421, 442, 52 S.Ct. 252, 257, 76 L.Ed. 375; Roberts & Schaefer Co. v. Emmerson, 271 U.S. 50, 54 55, 46 S.Ct. 375, 376—377, 70 L.Ed. 827; Jeffrey Mfg. Co. v. Blagg, 235 U.S. 571, 576, 35 S.Ct. 167, 169, 59 L.Ed. 364; Tyler v. Judges of the Court of Registration, 179 U.S. 405, 21 S.Ct. 206, 45 L.Ed. 252; Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 347—348, 56 S.Ct. 466, 483—484, 80 L.Ed. 688 (concurring opinion). In Barrows v. Jackson, 346 U.S. 249, 73 S.Ct. 1031, 97 L.Ed. 1586, this Court developed various reasons for this rule. Very significant is the incontrovertible proposition that it 'would indeed be undesirable for this Court to consider every conceivable situation which might possibly arise in the application of complex and comprehensive legislation.'

Id., 346 U.S. at page 256, 73 S.Ct. at page 1035. The delicate power of pronouncing an Act of Congress unconstitutional is not to be exercised with reference to hypothetical cases thus imagined. The Court further pointed to the fact that a limiting construction could be given to the statute by the court responsible for its construction if an application of doubtful constitutionality were in fact concretely presented. We might add that application of this rule frees the Court not only from unnecessary pronouncement on constitutional issues, but also from premature interpretations of statutes in areas where their constitutional application might be cloudy.

The District Court relied on, and appellees urge here, certain cases which are said to be inconsistent with this rule and with its closely related corollary that a litigant may only assert his own constitutional rights or immunities. In many of their applications, these are not principles ordained by the Constitution, but constitute rather 'rule(s) of practice,' Barrows v. Jackson, supra, 346 U.S. at page 257, 73 S.Ct. at page 1035, albeit weighty ones; hence some exceptions to them where there are weightly countervailing policies have been and are recognized. For example, where, as a result of the very litigation in question, the constitutional rights of one not a party would be impaired, and where he has no effective way to preserve them himself, the Court may consider those rights as before it. N.A.A.C.P. v. State of Alabama, 357 U.S. 449, 459—460, 78 S.Ct. 1163, 1170—1171, 2 L.Ed.2d 1488; Barrows v. Jackson, supra. This Court has indicated that where the application of these rules would itself have an inhibitory effect on freedom of speech, they may not be applied. See Smith v. People of State of California, 361 U.S. 147, 151, 80 S.Ct. 215, 217, 4 L.Ed.2d 205; Thornhill v. State of Alabama, 310 U.S. 88, 97—98, 60 S.Ct. 736, 741—742, 84 L.Ed. 1093. Perhaps cases can be put where their application to a criminal statute would necessitate such a revision of its text as to create a situation in which the statute no longer gave an intelligible warning of the conduct it prohibited. See United States v. Reese, 92 U.S 214, 219—220, 23 L.Ed. 563; cf. Winters v. People of State of New York, 333 U.S. 507, 518—520, 68 S.Ct. 665, 671—672, 92 L.Ed. 840. And the rules' rationale may disappear where the statute in question has already been declared unconstitutional in the vast majority of its intended applications, and it can fairly be said that it was not intended to stand as valid, on the basis of fortuitous circumstances, only in a fraction of the cases it was originally designed to cover. See Butts v. Merchants & Miners Transportation Co., 230 U.S. 126, 33 S.Ct. 964, 57 L.Ed. 1422. The same situation is presented when a state statute comes conclusively pronounced by a state court as having an otherwise valid provision or application inextricably tied up with an invalid one, see Dorchy v. State of Kansas, 264 U.S. 286, 290, 44 S.Ct. 323, 325, 68 L.Ed. 686;3 or possibly in that rarest of cases where this Court can justifiably think itself able confidently to discern that Congress would not have desired its legislation to stand at all unless it could validly stand in its every application. Cf. The Trade-Mark Cases, 100 U.S. 82, 97—98, 25 L.Ed. 550; The Employers' Liability Cases, 207 U.S. 463, 501, 28 S.Ct. 141, 146, 52 L.Ed. 297. But we see none of the countervailing considerations suggested by these examples, or any other countervailing consideration, as warranting the District Court's action here in considering the constitutionality of the Act in applications not before it.4

This case is rather the most typical one for application of the...

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