United States v. Vuitch, No. 84

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtBLACK
Citation402 U.S. 62,28 L.Ed.2d 601,91 S.Ct. 1294
Decision Date21 April 1971
Docket NumberNo. 84
PartiesUNITED STATES, Appellant, v. Milan VUITCH

402 U.S. 62
91 S.Ct. 1294
28 L.Ed.2d 601
UNITED STATES, Appellant,

v.

Milan VUITCH.

No. 84.
Argued Jan. 12, 1971.
Decided April 21, 1971.

Page 63

Samuel Huntington for appellant.

Joseph L. Nellis and Norman Dorsen, New York City, for appellee.

Mr. Justice BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.*

Appellee Milan Vuitch, a licensed physician, was indicted in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for producing and attempting to produce abortions in violation of D.C. Code Ann. § 22—201 (1967). Before trial, the district judge granted Vuitch's motion to dismiss the indictments on the ground that the District of Columbia abortion law was unconstitutionally vague. 305 F.Supp. 1032 (DC 1969). The United States ap-

Page 64

pealed to this Court under the Criminal Appeals Act, 18 U.S.C. § 3731. We postponed decision on jurisdiction to the hearing on the merits, 397 U.S. 1061, 90 S.Ct. 1497, 25 L.Ed.2d 683, and requested the parties to brief and argue specified questions on that issue. 399 U.S. 923, 90 S.Ct. 2235, 26 L.Ed.2d 789. We hold that we have jurisdiction and that the statute is not unconstitutionally vague. We reverse.

I

The first question is whether we have jurisdiction under the Criminal Appeals Act to entertain this direct appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. That Act1 gives us jurisdiction over direct appeals from district court judgments 'in all criminal cases * * * dismissing any indictment * * * where such decision * * * is based upon the invalidity * * * of the statute upon which the indictment * * * is founded.' 18 U.S.C. § 3731. The decision appealed from is a dismissal of indictments on the ground that the District of Columbia abortion law, on which the indictments were based, is unconstitutionally vague. This abortion statute, D.C.Code Ann. § 22—201, is an Act of Congress applicable only in the District of Columbia and we suggested that the parties argue whether a decision holding unconstitutional such a statute is appealable directly to this Court under the Criminal Appeals Act. The literal wording of the Act plainly includes this statute, even though it applies only to the District. A piece of legislation so limited is nevertheless a 'statute' in the sense

Page 65

that it was duly enacted into law by both Houses of Congress and was signed by the President. And the Criminal Appeals Act contains no language that purports to limit or qualify the term 'statute.' On the contrary, the Act authorizes Government appeals from district courts to the Supreme Court in 'all criminal cases' where a district court judgment dismissing an indictment is based upon the invalidity of the statute on which the indictment is founded.

An examination of the legislative history of the Criminal Appeals Act and its amendments suggests no reason why we should depart from the Act's literal meaning and exclude District of Columbia (hereafter sometimes D.C.) statutes from its coverage. The committee reprots and floor debates contain no discussion indicating that the term 'statute' does not include statutes applicable only to the District of Columbia.2 We therefore conclude that we have jurisdiction over this appeal under the Criminal Appeals Act.

Our Brother HARLAN has argued in dissent that we do not have jurisdiction over this district appeal. He suggests that such a result is supported by the decision in United States v. Burroughs, 289 U.S. 159, 53 S.Ct. 574, 77 L.Ed. 1096 (1933), the policy underlying the Criminal Appeals Act, and the canon of construction that statutes governing direct appeals to this Court should be strictly construed.

It is difficult to see how the Burroughs decision lends much force to his argument, since that case held only that the term 'district court' in the Criminal Appeal Act did not include the thenexisting Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Id., at 163—164, 53 S.Ct., at 576—577. The dissent goes on to suggest the Act should be construed in light of the

Page 66

congressional purpose of avoiding 'inconsistent enforcement of criminal laws.' Post, at 92. This purpose would not be served by our refusing to decide this case now after it has been orally argued. In the last several years, abortion laws have been repeatedly attacked as unconstitutionally vague in both state and federal courts with widely varying results. A number of these cases are now pending on our docket. A refusal to accept jurisdiction here would only compound confusion for doctors, their patients, and law enforcement officials. As this case makes abundantly clear, a ruling on the validity of a statute applicable only to the District can contribute to great disparities and confusion in the enforcement of criminal laws. Finally, my Brother HARLAN'S dissent also appears to rely on the fact that this Court has never accepted jurisdiction over a direct appeal under the Criminal Appeals Act involving the validity of a District of Columbia statute. Post, at 93. Since this Court has never either accepted or rejected jurisdiction of such an appeal, it is difficult to see how the complete absence of precedent in this Court lends any weight whatever to his argument. Neither previous cases nor the purpose behind the Criminal Appeals Act provides any satisfactory reason why the term 'statute' should not include those statutes applicable only in the District of Columbia.

One other procedural problem remains. We asked the parties to brief the question whether the Government could have appealed this case to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit under D.C.Code Ann. § 23—105 (Supp.1970), and, if so, whether we should refuse to entertain the appeal here as a matter of sound judicial administration. That D.C.Code provision states:

'In all criminal prosecutions the United States * * * shall have the same right of appeal that is given to the defendant * * *.'

Page 67

The relationship between the Criminal Appeals Act and this Code section was considered in Carroll v. United States, 354 U.S. 394, 411, 77 S.Ct. 1332, 1342, 1 L.Ed.2d 1442 (1957), where the Court concluded:

'(C)riminal appeals by the Government in the District of Columbia are not limited to the categories set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3731 (the Criminal Appeals Act), although as to cases of the type covered by that special jurisdictional statute, its explicit directions will prevail over the general terms of (D.D.Code Ann. § 23—105 (Supp. 1970)).'

Since we have concluded above that this appeal is covered by the Criminal Appeals Act, it would seem to follow from Carroll that the Act's provisions control and no appeal could have been taken to the Court of Appeals. Although Carroll seems to be dispositive, it has been suggested that it may now be limited by United States v. Sweet, 399 U.S. 517, 90 S.Ct. 1958, 26 L.Ed.2d 770 (1970), which contains some language suggesting that the Government may be empowered to take an appeal to the Court of Appeals under § 23—105, even when a direct appeal would be proper here under the Criminal Appeals Act. Id., at 518, 90 S.Ct., at 1959. We do not elaborate upon that suggestion. We only hold that once an appeal is properly here under the Criminal Appeals Act, we should not refuse to consider it because it might have been taken to another court.

II

We turn now to the merits. Appellee Milan Vuitch was indicted for producing and attempting to produce abortions in violation of D.C.Code Ann. § 22—201. That Act provides in part:

'Whoever, by means of any instrument, medicine, drug or other means whatever, procures or produces, or attempts to procure or produce an abortion or

Page 68

miscarriage on any woman, unless the same were done as necessary for the preservation of the mother's life or health and under the direction of a competent licensed practitioner of medicine, shall be imprisoned in the penitentiary not less than one year or not more than ten years * * *.'

Without waiting for trial, the District Judge dismissed the indictments on the ground that the abortion statute was unconstitutionally vague. In his view, set out substantially in full below,3 the statute was vague for two principal reasons:

1. The fact that once an abortion was proved a physician 'is presumed guilty and remains so unless a jury

Page 69

can be persuaded that his acts were necessary for the preservation of the woman's life or health.'

2. The presence of the 'ambivalent and uncertain word 'health."

In concluding that the statute places the burden of persuasion on the defendant once the fact of an abortion has been proved,4 the court relied on Williams v. United States, 78 U.S.App.D.C. 147, 138 F.2d 81 (1943). There the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit held that the prosecution was not required to prove as part of its case in chief that the operation was not necessary to preserve life or health. Id., at 147, 149, 138 F.2d, at 81, 83. The court indicated that once the prosecution established that an abortion had been performed the defendant was required 'to come forward with evidence which with or without other evidence is sufficient to create a reasonable doubt of guilt.' Id., at 150, 138 F.2d, at 84. The District Court here appears to have read Williams as holding that once an abortion is proved, the burden of persuading the jury that it was legal (i.e., necessary to the preservation of the mother's life or health) is cast upon the physician. Whether or not this is a correct reading of Williams, we

Page 70

believe it is an erroneous interpretation of the statute. Certainly a statute that outlawed only a limited category of abortions but 'presumed' guilt whenever the mere fact of abortion was established, would at the very least present serious constitutional problems under this Court's previous decisions interpreting the Fifth Amendment. Tot v. United States, 319 U.S. 463, 63 S.Ct. 1241, 87 L.Ed. 1519 (1943);...

To continue reading

Request your trial
185 practice notes
  • Wynn v. Scott, No. 75 C 3975 and 75 C 3981.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • April 12, 1978
    ...U.S., at 166, 93 S.Ct. 705. The Act does no more than incorporate the Court's language in Wade. Additionally, in United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 28 449 F. Supp. 1319 L.Ed.2d 601 (1971), the Court held that in a comparably worded provision, the word "health" included men......
  • US v. Mendez, No. 88 Cr. 78 (MBM).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • June 16, 1988
    ...doubts. See, Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Brock, 480 U.S. 678, 107 S.Ct. 1476, 1480-81, 94 L.Ed.2d 661 (1987); United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 70, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 1298, 28 L.Ed.2d 601 (1971). It is true that from a constitutional standpoint the assignment of the Commission to the "judicial......
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Pennsylvania Section v. Thornburgh, No. 82-1785 and C
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 28, 1984
    ...the Pennsylvania Act does not squarely place the burden of proving absence of medical necessity on the state. In United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 28 L.Ed.2d 601 (1971), the Court construed the District of Columbia's abortion ordinance, which also did not explicitly place......
  • Richmond Medical Center for Women v. Gilmore, No. Civ.A. 3:98cv309.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • July 16, 1999
    ...in a manner that permitted the Court to reject the plaintiffs' challenge. See id. at 191-92, 93 S.Ct. 739 (citing United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 71-72, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 28 L.Ed.2d 601 57. The district court in Verniero, a case assessing the constitutionality of New Jersey's partial bir......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
185 cases
  • Wynn v. Scott, No. 75 C 3975 and 75 C 3981.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • April 12, 1978
    ...U.S., at 166, 93 S.Ct. 705. The Act does no more than incorporate the Court's language in Wade. Additionally, in United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 28 449 F. Supp. 1319 L.Ed.2d 601 (1971), the Court held that in a comparably worded provision, the word "health" included men......
  • US v. Mendez, No. 88 Cr. 78 (MBM).
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. Southern District of New York
    • June 16, 1988
    ...doubts. See, Alaska Airlines, Inc. v. Brock, 480 U.S. 678, 107 S.Ct. 1476, 1480-81, 94 L.Ed.2d 661 (1987); United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 70, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 1298, 28 L.Ed.2d 601 (1971). It is true that from a constitutional standpoint the assignment of the Commission to the "judicial......
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Pennsylvania Section v. Thornburgh, No. 82-1785 and C
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • June 28, 1984
    ...the Pennsylvania Act does not squarely place the burden of proving absence of medical necessity on the state. In United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 28 L.Ed.2d 601 (1971), the Court construed the District of Columbia's abortion ordinance, which also did not explicitly place......
  • Richmond Medical Center for Women v. Gilmore, No. Civ.A. 3:98cv309.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Virginia)
    • July 16, 1999
    ...in a manner that permitted the Court to reject the plaintiffs' challenge. See id. at 191-92, 93 S.Ct. 739 (citing United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62, 71-72, 91 S.Ct. 1294, 28 L.Ed.2d 601 57. The district court in Verniero, a case assessing the constitutionality of New Jersey's partial bir......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Pregnancy’s Risks and the Health Exception in Abortion Jurisprudence
    • United States
    • Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law Nbr. XXII-1, October 2020
    • October 1, 2020
    ...origin or limit the exception. Roe did not def‌ine health in its holding but twice referenced an earlier case, United States v. Vuitch, 402 U.S. 62 (1971), in which the Supreme Court rejected the district court’s f‌inding that the word “health” in a statute prohibiting abortion but for situ......

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT