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Zwickler v. Koota

An Important Reversal

By a majority vote of 8-1, the Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, and remanded the case to the lower court for judgement. The district court applied the doctrine of abstention when "special circumstances" did not exist. The Supreme Court first considered whether abstention from the declaratory judgment sought by appellant was appropriate in the absence of his request for injunctive relief. They then considered whether abstention was justified because appellant also sought an injunction against future criminal prosecutions for violation of section 781-b of the New York Penal law.

Congress relied on the state courts to vindicate essential rights arising under the Constitution and federal laws during most of the nation's first century. The only exception was the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789. This act provided for Supreme Court review when a state court denied a federal claim. After the Civil War, the policy was completely altered when nationalism dominated political thought. Congress gave the federal judiciary increased powers. The act of 3 March 1875 was the principal means of the broadening federal domain in the area of individual rights. This statute allowed Congress to give the federal courts a vast range of power, which had lain dormant in the Constitution since 1789. The federal courts ceased to be restricted tribunals of fair dealing between citizens of different states. They became the primary and powerful forum for vindicating every right given by the Constitution, the laws, and treaties of the United States.

Prior to the 1875 act, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This act allowed suit to be brought against "every person who, under color of any statute . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person . . . to the deprivation of any rights . . . secured by the Constitution and laws." It gave the district courts "original jurisdiction" of actions under state law of any right secured by the Constitution.

The Supreme Court held that in expanding federal judicial power, Congress imposed the duty upon all levels of the federal judiciary. It was a duty to give due respect to a suitor's choice of a federal forum for the hearing and decision of his federal constitutional claims. A federal court cannot escape from that duty because state courts also have the solemn responsibility to guard, enforce, and protect every right granted or secured by the Constitution of the United States.

The judge-developed doctrine of abstention was created in 1941 in Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Company. This doctrine sanctions the use of the doctrine only in narrowly limited "special circumstances." One of the "special circumstances" is the susceptibility of a state statute to interpretation by the state courts that would avoid or modify a constitutional question. The Court argued that the district court applied this maxim.

The Supreme Court said that they were not reviewing the issue of construction of section 781-b of the New York Penal Law that would "avoid or modify the constitutional question." Zwickler's appeal was not based on the fact that the statute is void for "vagueness." Zwickler based his constitutional attack on the fact that the statute, although lacking neither clarity nor precision, was void for "overbreadth." This means that it violated the constitutional principle that "a governmental purpose to control or prevent activities constitutionally subject to state regulation may not be achieved by means which sweep unnecessarily broadly and thereby invade the area of protected freedoms." Koota did not contest Zwickler's suggestion that 781-b is both clear and precise.

The Court used the principle established in Livingston v. United States (1960) as a guide to its decision. The principle is expressed as:

Regard for the interest and sovereignty of the state and reluctance needlessly to adjudicate constitutional issues may require a federal District Court to abstain from adjudication if the parties may avail themselves of an appropriate procedure to obtain state interpretation of state laws requiring construction Harrison v. National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The decision in Harrison, however, is not a broad encyclical commanding automatic remission to the state courts of all federal constitutional questions arising in the application of state statutes National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Bennett Though never interpreted by a state court, if a state statute is not fairly subject to an interpretation, which will avoid or modify the federal constitutional question, it is the duty of a federal court to decide the federal question when presented to it. Any other course would impose expense and long delay upon the litigants without hope of its bearing fruit.

In Turner v. City of Memphis (1962), the Court vacated an abstention order. Its basis was that a declaratory judgment action ought to have been brought in the state court, before the federal court, in a Fourteenth Amendment issue. In McNeese v. Board of Education (1959), it was shown that abstention cannot be ordered simply to give state courts the first opportunity to vindicate the federal claim. In the McNeese case, the Court concluded that "we would defeat those purposes if we held that assertion of a federal claim in a federal court must await an attempt to vindicate the same claim in a state court." The Court ruled that the district court erred in refusing the Zwickler claim for declaratory judgement since there was no "special circumstance" to satisfy the doctrine of abstention.

Zwickler asked for an injunction against further prosecutions in violation of section 781-b of the New York penal code. He wanted to continue to distribute anonymous handbills in quantity in connection with election of party officials. The majority of the Supreme Court was of the opinion that abstention from deciding the declaratory judgment issue was justified because Zwickler had not shown "special circumstances" entitling him to an injunction against criminal prosecution. It would be the task of the district court on the remand to decide whether an injunction will be "necessary or appropriate" should Zwickler request for declaratory relief prevail.

Justice Harlan concurred but wrote a separate opinion. His opinion stressed a difference of view. He wrote "If, however, the opinion of the Court is intended to suggest that the central, or even a principal, issue in deciding the propriety of abstention is whether the complaint has alleged `overbreadth,' or only `vagueness,' with respect to the New York statute in question, I cannot agree." His main argument was based on the fact that neither principle has ever been definitively delimited by the Supreme Court, and a doctrine built upon their supposed differences would flounder because of lack of a foundation.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Zwickler v. Koota - Significance, An Important Reversal, An Additional Reversal, Related Cases