Younger v. Harris
401 U.S. 37 (1971)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971)

Younger v. Harris

No. 2

Argued April 1, 1969

Reargued April 29 and November 16, 1970

Decided February 23, 1971

401 U.S. 37




Appellee Harris, who had been indicted for violating the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, sued in the Federal District Court to enjoin appellant, the county District Attorney, from prosecuting him, contending that the Act is unconstitutional on its face and inhibits him in exercising his free speech rights. Appellees Dan and Hirsch, claiming that the prosecution of Harris would "inhibit" them from peacefully advocating the program of the political party to which they belonged, and appellee Broslawsky, a college professor, claiming that the prosecution made him "uncertain" as to whether his teaching and reading practices would subject him to prosecution, intervened as plaintiffs. All asserted that they would suffer irreparable injury unless a federal injunction was issued. A three-judge court, relying on Dombrowski v. Pfister,380 U. S. 479, held the Act void for vagueness and overbreadth, and enjoined Harris' prosecution.


1. There is no basis for equitable jurisdiction based on the allegations of appellees other than Harris, who have not been indicted, arrested, or threatened with prosecution, and the normal course of a state criminal prosecution cannot be blocked on the basis of fears of prosecution that are merely speculative. Pp. 401 U. S. 41-42.

2. Federal courts will not enjoin pending state criminal prosecutions except under extraordinary circumstances where the danger of irreparable loss is both great and immediate in that (unlike the situation affecting Harris) there is a threat to the plaintiff's federally protected rights that cannot be eliminated by his defense against a single prosecution. The decision in Dombrowski, supra, which involved alleged bad faith harassment and is factually distinguishable from this case, does not substantially broaden the availability of injunctions against state criminal prosecutions. Pp. 401 U. S. 43-54.

281 F.Supp. 507, reversed.

Page 401 U. S. 38

BLACK, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and HARLAN, STEWART, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which HARLAN, J., joined, post, p. 401 U. S. 54. BRENNAN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the result, in which WHITE and MARSHALL JJ., joined, post, p. 401 U. S. 56. DOUGLAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 401 U. S. 58.

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellee, John Harris, Jr., was indicted in a California state court, charged with violation of the California Penal Code §§ 11400 and 11401, known as the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, set out below. [Footnote 1] He then filed

Page 401 U. S. 39

a complaint in the Federal District Court asking that court to enjoin the appellant, Younger, the District Attorney of Los Angeles County, from prosecuting him, and alleging that the prosecution and even the presence of the Act inhibited him in the exercise of his rights of free speech and press, rights guaranteed him by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Appellees Jim Dan and Diane Hirsch intervened as plaintiffs in the suit, claiming that the prosecution of Harris would inhibit them as members of the Progressive Labor Party from peacefully advocating the program of their party, which was to replace capitalism with socialism and to abolish the profit system of production in this country. Appellee Farrell Broslawsky, an instructor in history at Los Angeles Valley College, also intervened, claiming that the prosecution of Harris made him uncertain as to whether he could

Page 401 U. S. 40

teach about the doctrines of Karl Marx or read from the Communist Manifesto as part of his classwork. All claimed that, unless the United States court restrained the state prosecution of Harris, each would suffer immediate and irreparable injury. A three-judge Federal District Court, convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2284, held that it had jurisdiction and power to restrain the District Attorney from prosecuting, held that the State's Criminal Syndicalism Act was void for vagueness and overbreadth in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and accordingly restrained the District Attorney from "further prosecution of the currently pending action against plaintiff Harris for alleged violation of the Act." 281 F.Supp. 507, 517 (1968).

The case is before us on appeal by the State's District Attorney Younger, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1253. In his notice of appeal and his jurisdictional statement, appellant presented two questions: (1) whether the decision of this Court in Whitney v. California,274 U. S. 357, holding California's law constitutional in 1927 was binding on the District Court and (2) whether the State's law is constitutional on its face. In this Court, the brief for the State of California, filed at our request, also argues that only Harris, who was indicted, has standing to challenge the State's law, and that issuance of the injunction was a violation of a longstanding judicial policy and of 28 U.S.C. § 2283, which provides:

"A court of the United States may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a State court except as expressly authorized by Act of Congress, or where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments."

See, e.g., Atlantic Coast Line R. Co. v. Engineers,398 U. S. 281, 398 U. S. 285-286 (1970). Without regard to the questions

Page 401 U. S. 41

raised about Whitney v. California, supra, since overruled by Brandenburg v. Ohio,395 U. S. 444 (1969), or the constitutionality of the state law, we have concluded that the judgment of the District Court, enjoining appellant Younger from prosecuting under these California statutes, must be reversed as a violation of the national policy forbidding federal courts to stay or enjoin pending state court proceedings except under special circumstances. [Footnote 2] We express no view about the circumstances under which federal courts may act when there is no prosecution pending in state courts at the time the federal proceeding is begun.


Appellee Harris has been indicted, and was actually being prosecuted by California for a violation of its Criminal Syndicalism Act at the time this suit was filed. He thus has an acute, live controversy with the State and its prosecutor. But none of the other parties plaintiff in the District Court, Dan, Hirsch, or Broslawsky, has such a controversy. None has been indicted, arrested, or even threatened by the prosecutor. About these three, the three-judge court said:

"Plaintiffs Dan and Hirsch allege that they are members of the Progressive Labor Party, which advocates change in industrial ownership and political change, and that they feel inhibited in advocating

Page 401 U. S. 42

the program of their political party through peaceful, nonviolent means, because of the presence of the Act 'on the books,' and because of the pending criminal prosecution against Harris. Plaintiff Broslawsky is a history instructor, and he alleges that he is uncertain as to whether his normal practice of teaching his students about the doctrines of Karl Marx and reading from the Communist Manifesto and other revolutionary works may subject him to prosecution for violation of the Act."

281 F.Supp. at 509. Whatever right Harris, who is being prosecuted under the state syndicalism law, may have, Dan, Hirsch, and Broslawsky cannot share it with him. If these three had alleged that they would be prosecuted for the conduct they planned to engage in, and if the District Court had found this allegation to be true -- either on the admission of the State's district attorney or on any other evidence -- then a genuine controversy might be said to exist. But here appellees Dan, Hirsch, and Broslawsky do not claim that they have ever been threatened with prosecution, that a prosecution is likely, or even that a prosecution is remotely possible. They claim the right to bring this suit solely because, in the language of their complaint, they "feel inhibited." We do not think this allegation, even if true, is sufficient to bring the equitable jurisdiction of the federal courts into play to enjoin a pending state prosecution. A federal lawsuit to stop a prosecution in a state court is a serious matter. And persons having no fears of state prosecution except those that are imaginary or speculative are not to be accepted as appropriate plaintiffs in such cases. See Golden v. Zwickler,394 U. S. 103 (1969). Since Harris is actually being prosecuted under the challenged laws, however, we proceed with him as a proper party.

Page 401 U. S. 43


Since the beginning of this country's history, Congress has, subject to few exceptions, manifested a desire to permit state courts to try state cases free from interference by federal courts. In 1793, an Act unconditionally provided: "[N]or shall a writ of injunction be granted to stay proceedings in any court of a state. . . ." 1 Stat. 335, c. 22, § 5. A comparison of the 1793 Act with 28 U.S.C. § 2283, its present-day successor, graphically illustrates how few and minor have been the exceptions granted from the flat, prohibitory language of the old Act. 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 judgments." In addition, a judicial exception to the longstanding policy evidenced by the statute has been made where a person about to be prosecuted in a state court can show that he will, if the proceeding in the state court is not enjoined, suffer irreparable damages. See Ex parte Young,209 U. S. 123 (1908). [Footnote 3]

The precise reasons for this longstanding public policy against federal court interference with state court proceedings have never been specifically identified, but the primary sources of the policy are plain. One is the basic doctrine of equity jurisprudence that courts of equity should not act, and particularly should not act to restrain a criminal prosecution, when the moving party has an adequate remedy at law and will not suffer irreparable

Page 401 U. S. 44

injury if denied equitable relief. The doctrine may originally have grown out of circumstances peculiar to the English judicial system and not applicable in this country, but its fundamental purpose of restraining equity jurisdiction within narrow limits is equally important under our Constitution in order to prevent erosion of the role of the jury and avoid a duplication of legal proceedings and legal sanctions where a single suit would be adequate to protect the rights asserted. This underlying reason for restraining courts of equity from interfering with criminal prosecutions is reinforced by an even more vital consideration, the notion of "comity," that is, a proper respect for state functions, a recognition of the fact that the entire country is made up of a Union of separate state governments, and a continuance of the belief that the National Government will fare best if the States and their institutions are left free to perform their separate functions in their separate ways. This, perhaps for lack of a better and clearer way to describe it, is referred to by many as "Our Federalism," and one familiar with the profound debates that ushered our Federal Constitution into existence is bound to respect those who remain loyal to the ideals and dreams of "Our Federalism." The concept does not mean blind deference to "States' Rights" any more than it means centralization of control over every important issue in our National Government and its courts. The Framers rejected both these courses. What the concept does represent is a system in which there is sensitivity to the legitimate interests of both State and National Governments, and in which the National Government, anxious though it may be to vindicate and protect federal rights and federal interests, always endeavors to do so in ways that will not unduly interfere with the legitimate activities of the States. It should never be forgotten that this slogan, "Our Federalism," born in the early struggling days of

Page 401 U. S. 45

our Union of States, occupies a highly important place in our Nation's history and its future.

This brief discussion should be enough to suggest some of the reasons why it has been perfectly natural for our cases to repeat time and time again that the normal thing to do when federal courts are asked to enjoin pending proceedings in state courts is not to issue such injunctions. In Fenner v. Boykin,271 U. S. 240 (1926), suit had been brought in the Federal District Court seeking to enjoin state prosecutions under a recently enacted state law that allegedly interfered with the free flow of interstate commerce. The Court, in a unanimous opinion, made clear that such a suit, even with respect to state criminal proceedings not yet formally instituted, could be proper only under very special circumstances:

"Ex parte Young,209 U. S. 123, and following cases have established the doctrine that, when absolutely necessary for protection of constitutional rights, courts of the United States have power to enjoin state officers from instituting criminal actions. But this may not be done except under extraordinary circumstances where the danger of irreparable loss is both great and immediate. Ordinarily, there should be no interference with such officers; primarily, they are charged with the duty of prosecuting offenders against the laws of the State and must decide when and how this is to be done. 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."

Id. at 271 U. S. 243-244. These principles, made clear in the Fenner case, have been repeatedly followed and reaffirmed in other cases involving threatened prosecutions. See, e.g., 295 U. S. S. 46

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