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Younger v. Harris

Significance

The decision upheld the long-standing policy of the Supreme Court's enjoining state criminal prosecutions only in situations where the enforcement of unconstitutional statutes would cause irreparable harm to the accused.

John Harris, Jr., was arrested for distributing written materials advocating radical social and economic change through political action and was indicted under the state of California's criminal syndicalism statute. This law defined a criminal syndicalist as:

Any person who: 1. By spoken or written words or personal conduct advocates, teaches or aids and abets criminal syndicalism or the duty, necessity or propriety of committing crime, sabotage, violence, or any unlawful method of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change; or 2. Willfully and deliberately by spoken or written words justifies or attempts to justify criminal syndicalism or the commission or attempt to commit crime, sabotage, violence or unlawful methods of terrorism with intent to approve, advocate, or further the doctrine of criminal syndicalism; or 3. Prints, publishes, edits, issues or circulates or publicly displays any book, paper, pamphlet, document, poster or written or printed matter in any form, containing or carrying written or printed advocacy, teaching, or aid and abetment of, or advising, criminal syndicalism . . .
The penalty for a conviction as a criminal syndicalist was one to fourteen years in prison.

Following his indictment in California State Court, Harris filed a complaint with the federal district court asking that his indictment be revoked and claiming that the existence of the criminal syndicalism statute infringed upon his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Other plaintiffs joined Harris's suit. Jim Dan and Diane Hirsch, members of the Progressive Labor Party, claimed that the statute would hinder their party in the lawful pursuit of its political aims; and Farrell Broslawsky, a teacher of history at Los Angeles Valley College, claimed that the prosecution of Harris made him doubt that he could legally teach his students about Communism. The federal district court sided with the complainants and compelled District Attorney Evelle J. Younger to abandon his prosecution of Harris. The district court also declared the state criminal syndicalism statute void for "vagueness and overbreadth in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments." Younger then appealed the district court's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case on 16 November 1970.

The Court first dealt with the claims of Harris's corespondents, agreeing with the state of California that they had no standing in the case. Broslawsky, Dan, and Hirsch could participate in the case only if they could demonstrate that a prosecution of them for their beliefs or affiliations was imminent, a claim they had not made. By their own admission, the three had only joined the case because they "felt inhibited" by Harris's prosecution.

The Court also ruled against Harris without deciding the constitutionality of the California criminal syndicalism statute, citing a 1793 act of Congress prohibiting federal writs of injunction to stay state criminal prosecutions.

During all this lapse of years from 1793 to 1970 the statutory exceptions to the 1793 congressional enactment have been only three: (1) "except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress"; (2) "where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction"; and (3) "to protect or effectuate its judgements".
The Court interpreted these exceptions as allowing a federal enjoinment of a state criminal prosecution only when "absolutely necessary for protection of constitutional rights" or "where the danger of irreparable loss (to the accused) is both great and immediate."

Although it found against Harris, the Court implied that California's criminal syndicalism statute might well be unconstitutional. It also implied that Harris might have been more successful had his attorneys used different tactics. "The accused should first set up and rely upon his defense in the state courts, even though this involves a challenge of the validity of some statute, unless it plainly appears that this course would not afford adequate protection." Harris may have been better off seeing his case through in state court and then appealing the verdict if he was convicted.

This decision did not break new legal ground, but rather upheld a long-standing reluctance to interrupt state criminal prosecutions while they are in progress.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1963 to 1972Younger v. Harris - Significance, Further Readings