Steffel v. Thompson
415 U.S. 452 (1974)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452 (1974)

Steffel v. Thompson

No. 72-5581

Argued November 13, 1973

Decided March 19, 1974

415 U.S. 452

Syllabus

Petitioner, who had twice been warned to stop handbilling on an exterior sidewalk of a shopping center against American involvement in Vietnam and threatened with arrest by police if he failed to do so, and whose companion continued handbilling and was charged with violating the Georgia criminal trespass law, brought an action for injunctive and declaratory relief in the District Court, claiming that application to him of that law would violate his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The District Court dismissed the action, finding that "no meaningful contention can be made that the state has [acted] or will . . . act in bad faith," and therefore "the rudiments of an active controversy between the parties . . . [are] lacking." The Court of Appeals affirmed, being of the view that Younger v. Harris,401 U. S. 37, made it clear that irreparable injury must be measured by bad faith harassment, and such a test must be applied to a request for injunctive relief against threatened, as well as pending, state court criminal prosecution; and that it followed from the reasoning of Samuels v. Mackell,401 U. S. 66, that the same test of bad faith harassment is a prerequisite for declaratory relief with respect to a threatened prosecution.

Held:

1. This case presents an "actual controversy" under Art. III of the Constitution and the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, the alleged threats of prosecution in the circumstances alleged not being "imaginary or speculative" and it being unnecessary for petitioner to expose himself to actual arrest or prosecution to make his constitutional challenge. Whether the controversy remains substantial and continuing in the light of the effect of the recent reduction of the Nation's involvement in Vietnam on petitioner's desire to engage in the handbilling at the shopping center must be resolved by the District Court on remand. Pp. 415 U. S. 458-460.

2. Federal declaratory relief is not precluded when a prosecution based upon an assertedly unconstitutional state statute has been threatened, but is not pending, even if a showing of bad faith

Page 415 U. S. 453

enforcement or other special circumstances has not been made. Pp. 415 U. S. 460-473.

(a) When no state criminal proceeding is pending at the time the federal complaint is filed, considerations of equity, comity, and federalism on which Younger v. Harris and Samuels v. Mackell both supra, were based, have little vitality: federal intervention does not result in duplicative legal proceedings or disruption of the state criminal justice system; nor can federal intervention, in that circumstance, be interpreted as reflecting negatively upon the state courts' ability to enforce constitutional principles. Pp. 415 U. S. 460-462

(b) Even if the Court of Appeals correctly viewed injunctive relief as inappropriate (a question not reached here, petitioner having abandoned his request for that remedy), the court erred in treating the requests for injunctive and declaratory relief as a single issue and in holding that a failure to demonstrate irreparable injury precluded the granting of declaratory relief. Congress plainly intended that a declaratory judgment be available as a milder alternative than the injunction to test the constitutionality of state criminal statutes. Pp. 415 U. S. 462-473.

3. In determining whether it is appropriate to grant declaratory relief when no state criminal proceeding is pending, it is immaterial whether the attack is made on the constitutionality of a state criminal statute on its face or as applied. Cameron v. Johnson,390 U. S. 611, distinguished. Pp. 415 U. S. 473-475.

459 F.2d 919, reversed and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 415 U. S. 475. WHITE, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 415 U. S. 476. REHNQUIST, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., joined, post, p. 415 U. S. 478.

Page 415 U. S. 454

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