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Walker v. Birmingham


In Walker v. Birmingham, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an individual may not deny an injunction, even if the injunction itself appears to be unconstitutional, without challenging the injunction's validity through the official mechanisms of judicial review. The Court, on a vote of 5-4, upheld the 1963 convictions of the Martin Luther King Jr. and seven other prominent black ministers, on charges that they inappropriately ignored an Alabama injunction aimed at stopping the group from demonstrating against discrimination in Birmingham. The demonstrations themselves were in violation of a Birmingham ordinance that required organizers to obtain a parade license. For a civil rights organizer in 1963, the very notion of obtaining such a license in Birmingham, Alabama, given its race relations climate, was absurd.

The demonstration that led to this case was part of a series of Birmingham protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Dr. King. After being refused a parade permit twice by Birmingham public safety commissioner Eugene Connor, the group decided to proceed with its planned demonstrations. Several African American protesters were arrested during marches on 6-7 April and 9-10 April for unlicensed parading. On the night of 10 April, an Alabama court issued an injunction enjoining King and his supporters from further unauthorized activity. The protesters chose to ignore the injunction, and proceeded with additional planned demonstrations on Good Friday, 12 April, and Easter Sunday, 14 April. Eight ministers, including King, were subsequently arrested, convicted of contempt, fined $50 each, and sentenced to five days in jail.

The trial court that heard the case declined to consider arguments regarding the constitutional status of either the Birmingham parade permit ordinance or the injunction. In convicting the eight clergymen, the court based its decision solely on the issues of whether the injunction was legally issued and whether the defendants had knowingly violated it. The Alabama Supreme Court likewise affirmed the decision. The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court had widely varying views of the case. A majority of justices acknowledged that the ordinance may very well have been unconstitutional, but that did not prevent them from voting to uphold the convictions.

The prevailing opinion, as written by Justice Stewart, was that King and his associates had no right to take the law into their own hands. Had the group fought the injunction through the channels of legal appeal, noted Stewart, it is quite possible that they would have won the right to demonstrate in Birmingham. "No man can be judge in his own case," wrote Stewart, "however exalted his station, however righteous his motives, and irrespective of his race, color, politics or religion." Quoting from Howat v. Kansas (1922) Stewart also wrote:

An injunction duly issuing out of a court of general jurisdiction with equity powers, upon pleadings properly invoking its action, and served upon pleadings properly invoking its action, and served upon persons made parties therein and within the jurisdiction, must be obeyed by them, however erroneous the action of the court may be.

In other words, if a court issues an injunction properly and in good faith, the individual must obey it until it is ruled invalid. Stewart then went on to describe circumstances under which this rule might not apply. Most important among these were instances "where the injunction was transparently invalid or had only a frivolous pretense to validity." It is exactly that sort of transparent invalidity and frivolity of pretense that some of Stewart's brethren believed were in play in Walker v. Birmingham. The four dissenting justices, to varying degrees, argued that the Birmingham parade permit ordinance and/or the injunction that ensued were "transparent" attempts to keep the ministers from asserting their protected right to free assembly. That being the case, the group was within their rights in ignoring both.

Chief Justice Warren, Justice Douglas, and Justice Brennan each wrote a dissenting opinion, and Justice Fortas concurred with all three. The dissenters based their arguments on the Court's longstanding approval of the right to disobey an invalid law. To these justices, Walker was a perfect example of individuals asserting that right. They also warned that allowing a state to use an injunction to impose prior restraint on speech without compelling cause would set a dangerous precedent. Warren wrote that "the ex parte temporary injunction has a long and odious history in this country, and its susceptibility to misuse is all too apparent from the facts of this case." His point was that such abuse of state power was likely to lead to weaker rather than greater respect for the law in the long run.

The fact that Walker v. Birmingham involved a contempt charge stemming from the injunction rather than a criminal charge involving the ordinance itself had an enormous impact on the case. By issuing an injunction, the Alabama court in effect guaranteed that the constitutionality of the Birmingham parade ordinance would not be the central issue of the case. Interestingly, that ordinance was held invalid by the U.S. Supreme Court two years later in Shuttlesworth v. City of Birmingham (1969), a case that involved circumstances virtually identical to those of Walker. The strength of the dissenters' arguments in Walker played no small role in bringing about the eventual discarding of the Birmingham law.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Walker v. Birmingham - Significance