Zwickler v. Koota
Zwickler presented an important question regarding the scope of the discretion of the district court to abstain from deciding the merits of a challenge that a state statute on its face violates the Constitution. The ruling established the facts for applying the "Doctrine of Abstention." Because there was no "special circumstance" warranting application of the abstention doctrine, a district court erred in refusing to hear a claim for a declaratory judgment. The decision established the principle that a federal court has to respect a suitor's choice of a federal forum for the hearing and decision of his federal constitutional claims. The principle that abstention cannot be used to give the state courts the first opportunity to vindicate a federal claim in First Amendment issues was established. The delay requiring recourse to the state courts might moot the constitutional right that a plaintiff seeks to protect.
Section 781-b of the New York Penal Law makes it a crime to distribute quantities of handbills which contain statements about a candidate in any election of public officers. The law requires that the name and post office address of the printer as well as that of the candidate must be on the handbill.
Zwickler was convicted of violating the statute by distributing anonymous handbills critical of the record of a U.S. Congressman seeking re-election at the 1964 elections. Zwickler appealed to the New York Court of Appeals. The court of appeals affirmed the conviction but offered no opinion. Zwickler then appealed to the New York Supreme Court. The court reversed the decision on the basis of state law.
Zwickler brought suit in district court under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Declaratory Judgment Act. He sought declaratory and injunctive relief in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The basis of the suit was that the New York statute was repugnant to the guarantees of free expression secured by the U.S. Constitution. His contention was that the statute suffers from impermissible "overbreadth" that embraces anonymous handbills, both within, and outside the protection of the First Amendment.
A three-judge court, one judge dissenting, applied the doctrine of abstention and dismissed the complaint. The court remitted the case to the New York courts to assert a constitutional challenge. Zwickler appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Court accepted the case. The basis of the appeal was that the discretion of the district courts to abstain from deciding the merits a state statute violates the Constitution.