Douglas v. City of Jeannette
319 U.S. 157 (1943)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Douglas v. City of Jeannette, 319 U.S. 157 (1943)

Douglas v. City of Jeannette

No. 450

Argued March 10, 11, 1943

Decided May 3, 1943

319 U.S. 157

CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. Members of Jehovah's Witnesses, in their own behalf and in behalf of all other Jehovah's Witnesses in the State and in adjoining States, brought suit in a federal District Court to restrain a city and its mayor from enforcing against them an ordinance prohibiting the solicitation of orders for merchandise without first procuring a license from the city authorities and paying a license tax. The complaint, praying equitable relief, alleged, in substance, that the defendants, by arrest, detention and criminal prosecution of the complainants and other Jehovah's Witnesses, had subjected them to deprivation of their rights of freedom of speech, press and religion, and that the defendants threaten to continue to enforce the ordinance by arrests and prosecutions. The suit was not based nor maintainable on the ground of diversity of citizenship, but was alleged to arise

Page 319 U. S. 158

under the Constitution and laws of the United States, including the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Held:

(1) The suit was within the jurisdiction of the District Court under 28 U.S.C. § 41(14) irrespective of the amount in controversy. P. 319 U. S. 161.

(2) The federal District Court, in the exercise of its discretion, should have refused to enjoin the threatened criminal prosecutions in the state courts. P. 319 U. S. 165.

2. The guaranties of the First Amendment are protected by the Fourteenth Amendment against encroachment by the States. P. 319 U. S. 162.

3. Allegations of fact sufficient to show deprivation of the right of free speech under the First Amendment are sufficient to establish deprivation of a constitutional right guaranteed by the Fourteenth, and to state a cause of action under the Civil Rights Act, whenever it appears that the abridgment of the right is effected under color of a state statute or ordinance. P. 319 U. S. 162.

4. Though a federal court have power as such to decide the cause, it should raise sua sponte the question of want of equity jurisdiction where its powers are invoked to interfere by injunction with threatened criminal prosecutions in a state court. P. 319 U. S. 162.

5. It is the policy of Congress generally to leave to the state courts the trial of criminal cases arising under state laws, subject to review by this Court of any federal questions involved, and the federal courts should conform to this policy by refusing to interfere with or embarrass threatened proceedings in state courts save in those exceptional cases which call for the interposition of a court of equity to prevent irreparable injury which is clear and imminent, and equitable remedies infringing this independence of the States -- though they might otherwise be given -- should be withheld if sought on slight or inconsequential grounds. P. 319 U. S. 163.

6. It does not appear from the record that petitioners have been threatened with any injury other than that incidental to any criminal prosecution brought lawfully and in good faith; or that a federal court of equity could rightly afford petitioners any protection which they could not secure by prompt trial in the state courts and appeal pursued to this Court; or that, in view of the decision in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, ante p. 319 U. S. 105, there is ground for supposing that, in order to secure for the future the complainants' constitutional rights, the intervention of a federal court will be either necessary or appropriate. P. 319 U. S. 164.

130 F.2d 652, affirmed.

Page 319 U. S. 159

CERTIORARI, 318 U.S. 749, to review the reversal of a decree, 39 F.Supp. 32, enjoining the enforcement against petitioners of a municipal ordinance.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners brought this suit in the United States District Court for Western Pennsylvania to restrain threatened criminal prosecution of them in the state courts by respondents, the City of Jeannette (a Pennsylvania municipal corporation) and its Mayor, for violation of a city ordinance which prohibits the solicitation of orders for merchandise without first procuring a license from the city authorities and paying a license tax. The ordinance, as applied, is held to be an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech, press and religion in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, ante, p. 319 U. S. 105. The questions decisive of the present case are whether the district court has statutory jurisdiction as a federal court to entertain the suit, and whether petitioners have, by their pleadings and proof, established a cause of action in equity.

The case is not one of diversity of citizenship, since some of the petitioners, like respondents, are citizens of Pennsylvania. The bill of complaint alleges that the named plaintiffs are Jehovah's Witnesses, persons who entertain religious beliefs and engage in religious practices which it describes; that the suit is a class suit brought in petitioners' own behalf and in behalf of all other Jehovah's Witnesses in Pennsylvania and adjoining states to restrain respondents from enforcing ordinance No. 60 of the City of Jeannette against petitioners and all other Jehovah's Witnesses because, as applied to them, the ordinance abridges the guaranties of freedom of speech, press, and religion of the First Amendment made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth.

Page 319 U. S. 160

The suit is alleged to arise under the Constitution and laws of the United States, including the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The complaint sets up that, in the practice of their religion and in conformity to the teachings of the Bible, Jehovah's Witnesses make, and for many years have made, house to house distribution, among the people of the City of Jeannette, of certain printed books and pamphlets setting forth the Jehovah's Witnesses' interpretations of the teachings of the Bible. Municipal Ordinance No. 60 provides:

"That all persons canvassing for or soliciting within said Borough (now City of Jeannette), orders for goods . . . wares or merchandise of any kind, or persons delivering such articles under orders so obtained or solicited,"

without first procuring a license and paying prescribed license taxes, shall be punished by fine not exceeding $100 and costs, or, if the fine is not paid, by imprisonment from five to thirty days. It is alleged that, in April, 1939, respondents arrested and prosecuted petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses for violation of the ordinance because of their described activities in distributing religious literature without the permits required by the ordinance, and that respondents threaten to continue to enforce the ordinance by arrests and prosecutions -- all in violation of petitioners' civil rights.

No preliminary or interlocutory injunction was granted, but the district court, after a trial, held the ordinance invalid, 39 F.Supp. 32, on the authority of Reid v. Borough of Brookville, 39 F.Supp. 30, in that it deprived petitioners of the rights of freedom of press and religion guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The court enjoined respondents from enforcing the ordinance against petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit sustained the jurisdiction of the district court, but reversed on the merits, 130 F.2d 652, on the authority of Jones v. Opelika,316 U. S. 584. One judge dissented on the ground that the complaint did not sufficiently allege a violation

Page 319 U. S. 161

of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment so as to entitle petitioners to relief under the Civil Rights Act. We granted certiorari, 318 U.S. 749, and set the case for argument with Murdock v. Pennsylvania, supra.

We think it plain that the district court had jurisdiction as a federal court to hear and decide the question of the constitutional validity of the ordinance, although there was no allegation or proof that the matter in controversy exceeded $3,000. By 8 U.S.C. § 43 (derived from § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of April 20, 1871, 17 Stat. 13, continued without substantial change as R.S. § 1979), it is provided that

"[e]very person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress."

As we held in Hague v. CIO,307 U. S. 496, 307 U. S. 507-514, 307 U. S. 527-532, the district courts of the United States are given jurisdiction by 28 U.S.C. § 41(14) over suits brought under the Civil Rights Act without the allegation or proof of any jurisdictional amount. Not only do petitioners allege that the present suit was brought under the Civil Rights Act, but their allegations plainly set out an infringement of its provisions. In substance, the complaint alleges that respondents, proceeding under the challenged ordinance, by arrest, detention and by criminal prosecutions of petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses, had subjected them to deprivation of their rights of freedom of speech, press and religion secured by the Constitution, and the complaint seeks equitable relief from such deprivation in the future.

The particular provision of the Constitution on which petitioners rely is the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth

Page 319 U. S. 162

Amendment, violation of which the dissenting judge below thought was not sufficiently alleged to establish a basis for relief under the Civil Rights Act. But we think this overlooks the special relationship of the Fourteenth Amendment to the rights of freedom of speech, press, and religion guaranteed by the First. We have repeatedly held that the Fourteenth Amendment has made applicable to the states the guaranties of the First. Schneider v. State,308 U. S. 147, 308 U. S. 160, n. 8 and cases cited; Jamison v. Texas,318 U. S. 413. Allegations of fact sufficient to show deprivation of the right of free speech under the First Amendment are sufficient to establish deprivation of a constitutional right guaranteed by the Fourteenth, and to state a cause of action under the Civil Rights Act, whenever it appears that the abridgment of the right is effected under color of a state statute or ordinance. It follows that the bill, which amply alleges the facts relied on to show the abridgment by criminal proceedings under the ordinance, sets out a case or controversy which is within the adjudicatory power of the district court.

Notwithstanding the authority of the district court, as a federal court, to hear and dispose of the case, petitioners are entitled to the relief prayed only if they establish a cause of action in equity. Want of equity jurisdiction, while not going to the power of the court to decide the cause, Di Giovanni v. Camden Ins. Assn.,296 U. S. 64, 296 U. S. 69; Pennsylvania v. Williams,294 U. S. 176, 294 U. S. 181-182, may nevertheless, in the discretion of the court, be objected to on its own motion. Twist v. Prairie Oil Co.,274 U. S. 684, 274 U. S. 690; Pennsylvania v. Williams, supra,294 U. S. 185. Especially should it do so where its powers are invoked to interfere by injunction with threatened criminal prosecutions in a state court.

The power reserved to the states under the Constitution to provide for the determination of controversies in

Page 319 U. S. 163

their courts may be restricted by federal district courts only in obedience to Congressional legislation in conformity to the judiciary Article of the Constitution. Congress, by its legislation, has adopted the policy, with certain well defined statutory exceptions, of leaving generally to the state courts the trial of criminal cases arising under state laws, subject to review by this Court of any federal questions involved. Hence, courts of equity, in the exercise of their discretionary powers, should conform to this policy by refusing to interfere with or embarrass threatened proceedings in state courts save in those exceptional cases which call for the interposition of a court of equity to prevent irreparable injury which is clear and imminent, and equitable remedies infringing this independence of the states -- though they might otherwise be given -- should be withheld if sought on slight or inconsequential grounds. Di Giovanni v. Camden Ins. Assn., supra,296 U. S. 73; Matthews v. Rodgers,284 U. S. 521, 284 U. S. 525-526; cf. United States ex rel. Kennedy v. Tyler,269 U. S. 13; Massachusetts State Grange v. Benton,272 U. S. 525.

It is a familiar rule that courts of equity do not ordinarily restrain criminal prosecutions. No person is immune from prosecution in good faith for his alleged criminal acts. Its imminence, even though alleged to be in violation of constitutional guaranties, is not a ground for equity relief, since the lawfulness or constitutionality of the statute or ordinance on which the prosecution is based may be determined as readily in the criminal case as in a suit for an injunction. Davis & Farnum Mfg. Co. v. Los Angeles,189 U. S. 207; Fenner v. Boykin,271 U. S. 240. Where the threatened prosecution is by state officers for alleged violations of a state law, the state courts are the final arbiters of its meaning and application, subject only to review by this Court on federal grounds appropriately asserted. Hence, the arrest by the federal courts of the processes of the criminal law within the

Page 319 U. S. 164

states, and the determination of questions of criminal liability under state law by a federal court of equity, are to be supported only on a showing of danger of irreparable injury "both great and immediate." Spielman Motor Co. v. Dodge,295 U. S. 89, 295 U. S. 95, and cases cited; Beal v. Missouri Pacific R. Corp.,312 U. S. 45, 312 U. S. 49, and cases cited; Watson v. Buck,313 U. S. 387; Williams v. Miller, 317 U.S. 599.

The trial court found that respondents had prosecuted certain of petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses for distributing the literature described in the complaint without having obtained the license required by the ordinance, and had declared their intention further to enforce the ordinance against petitioners and other Jehovah's Witnesses. But the court made no finding of threatened irreparable injury to petitioners or others, and we cannot say that the declared intention to institute other prosecutions is sufficient to establish irreparable injury in the circumstances of this case.

Before the present suit was begun, convictions had been obtained in the state courts in cases Nos. 480-487, Murdock et al. v. Pennsylvania, supra, which were then pending on appeal and which were brought to this Court for review by certiorari contemporaneously with the present case. It does not appear from the record that petitioners have been threatened with any injury other than that incidental to every criminal proceeding brought lawfully and in good faith, or that a federal court of equity, by withdrawing the determination of guilt from the state courts, could rightly afford petitioners any protection which they could not secure by prompt trial and appeal pursued to this Court. In these respects, the case differs from Hague v. CIO, supra,307 U. S. 501-502, where local officials forcibly broke up meetings of the complainants, and in many instances forcibly deported them from the state without trial.

Page 319 U. S. 165

There is no allegation here and no proof that respondents would not, nor can we assume that they will not, acquiesce in the decision of this Court holding the challenged ordinance unconstitutional as applied to petitioners. If the ordinance had been held constitutional, petitioners could not complain of penalties which would have been but the consequence of their violation of a valid state law.

Nor is it enough to justify the exercise of the equity jurisdiction in the circumstances of this case that there are numerous members of a class threatened with prosecution for violation of the ordinance. In general, the jurisdiction of equity to avoid multiplicity of civil suits at law is restricted to those cases where there would otherwise be some necessity for the maintenance of numerous suits between the same parties involving the same issues of law or fact. It does not ordinarily extend to cases where there are numerous parties and the issues between them and the adverse party -- here, the state -- are not necessarily identical. Matthews v. Rodgers, supra,284 U. S. 529-530, and cases cited. Far less should a federal court of equity attempt to envisage in advance all the diverse issues which could engage the attention of state courts in prosecutions of Jehovah's Witnesses for violations of the present ordinance, or assume to draw to a federal court the determination of those issues in advance by a decree saying in what circumstances and conditions the application of the city ordinance will be deemed to abridge freedom of speech and religion.

In any event, an injunction looks to the future. Texas Co. v. Brown,258 U. S. 466, 258 U. S. 474; Standard Oil Co. v. United States,283 U. S. 163, 283 U. S. 182. And in view of the decision rendered today in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, supra, we find no ground for supposing that the intervention of a federal court, in order to secure petitioners' constitutional rights, will be either necessary or appropriate.

Page 319 U. S. 166

For these reasons, establishing the want of equity in the cause, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court of appeals directing that the bill be dismissed.

Affirmed.

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON, concurring in the result in this case and dissenting in Nos. 480-487, Murdock v. Pennsylvania, ante, p. 319 U. S. 105, and No. 238, Martin v. Struthers, ante, p. 319 U. S. 141.

Except the case of Douglas et al. v. Jeannette, all of these cases are decided upon the record of isolated prosecutions in which information is confined to a particular act of offense and to the behavior of an individual offender. Only the Douglas record gives a comprehensive story of the broad plan of campaign employed by Jehovah's Witnesses and its full impact on a living community. But the facts of this case are passed over as irrelevant to the theory on which the Court would decide its particular issue. Unless we are to reach judgments as did Plato's men who were chained in a cave so that they saw nothing but shadows, we should consider the facts of the Douglas case at least as an hypothesis to test the validity of the conclusions in the other cases. This record shows us something of the strings, as well as the marionettes. It reveals the problem of those in local authority when the right to proselyte comes in contact with what many people have an idea is their right to be let alone. The Chief Justice says for the Court in Douglas that,

"in view of the decision rendered today in Murdock v. Pennsylvania, supra, we find no ground for supposing that the intervention of a federal court, in order to secure petitioners' constitutional rights, will be either necessary or appropriate,"

which could hardly be said if the constitutional issues presented by the facts of this case are not settled by the Murdock case. The facts of record in the Douglas case, and their relation to the facts of the other cases, seem to

Page 319 U. S. 167

me worth recital and consideration if we are realistically to weigh the conflicting claims of rights in the related cases today decided.

From the record in Douglas, we learn:

In 1939, a "Watch Tower Campaign" was instituted by Jehovah's Witnesses in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, an industrial city of some 16,000 inhabitants. [Footnote 1] Each home was visited, a bell was rung or the door knocked upon, and the householder advised that the Witness had important information. If the householder would listen, a record was played on the phonograph. Its subject was "Snare and Racket." The following words are representative of its contents:

"Religion is wrong, and a snare, because it deceives the people, but that does not mean that all who follow religion are willingly bad. Religion is a racket because it has long been used, and is still used, to extract money from the people upon the theory and promise that the paying over of money to a priest will serve to relieve the party paying from punishment after death, and further insure his salvation."

This line of attack is taken by the Witnesses generally upon all denominations, especially the Roman Catholic. The householder was asked to buy a variety of literature for a price or contribution. The

Page 319 U. S. 168

price would be twenty-five cents for the books and smaller sums for the pamphlets. Oftentimes, if he was unwilling to purchase, the book or pamphlet was given to him anyway.

When this campaign began, many complaints from offended householders were received, and three or four of the Witnesses were arrested. Thereafter, the "zone servant" in charge of the campaign conferred with the Mayor. He told the Mayor it was their right to carry on the campaign, and showed him a decision of the United States Supreme Court, said to have that effect, as proof of it. The Mayor told him that they were at liberty to distribute their literature in the streets of the city, and that he would have no objection if they distributed the literature free of charge at the houses, but that the people objected to their attempt to force these sales, and particularly on Sunday. The Mayor asked whether it would not be possible to come on some other day, and to distribute the literature without selling it. The zone servant replied that that was contrary to their method of "doing business," and refused. He also told the Mayor that he would bring enough Witnesses into the City of Jeannette to get the job done, whether the Mayor liked it or not. The Mayor urged them to await the outcome of an appeal which was then pending in the other cases and let the matter take its course through the courts. This, too, was refused, and the threat to bring more people than the Mayor's police force could cope with was repeated.

On Palm Sunday of 1939, the threat was made good. Over 100 of the Witnesses appeared. They were strangers to the city, and arrived in upwards of twenty-five automobiles. The automobiles were parked outside the city limits, and headquarters were set up in a gasoline station with telephone facilities through which the director of the campaign could be notified when trouble occurred. He furnished bonds for the Witnesses as they were arrested.

Page 319 U. S. 169

As they began their work, around 9:00 o'clock in the morning, telephone calls began to come in to the Police Headquarters, and complaints in large volume were made all during the day. They exceeded the number that the police could handle, and the Fire Department was called out to assist. The Witnesses called at homes singly and in groups, and some of the homes complained that they were called upon several times. Twenty-one Witnesses were arrested. Only those were arrested where definite proof was obtainable that the literature had been offered for sale or a sale had been made for a price. Three were later discharged for inadequacies in this proof, and eighteen were convicted. The zone servant furnished appeal bonds.

The national structure of the Jehovah's Witness movement is also somewhat revealed in this testimony. At the head of the movement in this country is the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society, a corporation organized under the laws of Pennsylvania but having its principal place of business in Brooklyn, N.Y. It prints all pamphlets, manufactures all books, supplies all phonographs and records, and provides other materials for the Witnesses. It "ordains" these Witnesses by furnishing each, on a basis which does not clearly appear, a certificate that he is a minister of the Gospel. Its output is large, and its revenues must be considerable. Little is revealed of its affairs. One of its "zone servants" testified that its correspondence is signed only with the name of the corporation, and anonymity as to its personnel is its policy. The assumption that it is a "nonprofit charitable" corporation may be true, but it is without support beyond mere assertion. In none of these cases has the assertion been supported by such usual evidence as a balance sheet or an income statement. What its manufacturing costs and revenues are, what salaries or bonuses it pays, what contracts it has for supplies or services, we simply do not

Page 319 U. S. 170

know. The effort of counsel for Jeannette to obtain information, books and records of the local "companies" of Witnesses engaged in the Jeannette campaign in the trial was met by contradictory statements as to the methods and meaning of such meager accounts as were produced.

The publishing output of the Watch Tower corporation is disposed of through converts, some of whom are full-time and some part-time ministers. These are organized into groups or companies under the direction of "zone servants." It is their purpose to carry on in a thorough manner so that every home in the communities in which they work may be regularly visited three or four times a year. The full-time Witnesses acquire their literature from the Watch Tower Bible & Tract Society at a figure which enables them to distribute it at the prices printed thereon with a substantial differential. Some of the books they acquire for 5

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