A state court cannot enjoin plaintiffs from prosecuting or
appealing an in personam
action in a federal court which
has jurisdiction of the parties and the subject matter, nor can
this federal right be divested by state contempt or other
proceedings, even though a judgment of a state court in the same
controversy has already been rendered against certain petitioners.
The case is remanded to the state trial court to consider whether
it would have punished petitioners for contempt had it known that
the restraining order petitioners violated was invalid. Pp.
377 U. S.
365 S.W.2d 919
368 S.W.2d 240 (Tex.Civ.App.), judgment vacated and cause
MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question presented here is whether a state court can validly
enjoin a person from prosecuting an action in personam
a district or appellate court of the United States which has
jurisdiction both of the parties and of the subject matter.
The City of Dallas, Texas, owns Love Field, a municipal airport.
In 1961, 46 Dallas citizens who owned or had interests in property
near the airport filed a class suit in a Texas court to restrain
the City from building an additional runway and from issuing and
Page 377 U. S. 409
bonds for that purpose. The complaint alleged many damages that
would occur to the plaintiffs if the runway should be built, and
charged that issuance of the bonds would be illegal for many
reasons. The case was tried, summary judgment was given for the
City, the Texas Court of Civil Appeals affirmed, [Footnote 1
] the Supreme Court of Texas denied
review, and we denied certiorari. [Footnote 2
] Later, 120 Dallas citizens, including 27 of
the plaintiffs in the earlier action, filed another action in the
United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas
seeking similar relief. A number of new defendants were named in
addition to the City of Dallas, all the defendants being charged
with taking part in plans to construct the runway and to issue and
sell bonds in violation of state and federal laws. The complaint
sought an injunction against construction of the runway, issuance
of bonds, payment on bonds already issued, and circulation of false
information about the bond issue, as well as a declaration that all
the bonds were illegal and void. None of the bonds would be
approved, and therefore, under Texas law, none could be issued, so
long as there was pending litigation challenging their validity.
] The City filed a
motion to dismiss and an answer to the complaint in the federal
court. But, at the same time, the City applied to the Texas Court
of Civil Appeals for a writ of prohibition to bar all the
plaintiffs in the case in the United States District Court from
prosecuting their case there. The Texas Court of Civil Appeals
denied relief, holding that it was without power to enjoin
litigants from prosecuting an action in a federal court, and that
the defense of res judicata
on which the City relied could
be raised and adjudicated in the United States District
Page 377 U. S. 410
Court. [Footnote 4
petition for mandamus, the Supreme Court of Texas took a different
view, however, held it the duty of the Court of Civil Appeals to
prohibit the litigants from further prosecuting the United States
District Court case, and stated that a writ of mandamus would issue
should the Court of Civil Appeals fail to perform this duty.
] The Court of Civil
Appeals promptly issued a writ prohibiting all the plaintiffs in
the United States District Court case from any further prosecution
of that case, and enjoined them
"individually and as a class . . . from filing or instituting .
. . any further litigation, law suits or actions in any court, the
purpose of which is to contest the validity of the airport revenue
bonds . . . or from in any manner interfering with . . . the
proposed bonds. . . ."
The United States District Court in an unreported opinion
dismissed the case pending there. Counsel Donovan, who is one of
the petitioners here, excepted to the dismissal, and then filed an
appeal from that dismissal in the United States Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit. The Texas Court of Civil Appeals thereupon
cited Donovan and the other United States District Court claimants
for contempt, and convicted 87 of them on a finding that they had
violated its "valid order." [Footnote 6
] Donovan was sentenced to serve 20 days in
jail, and the other 86 were fined $200 each, an aggregate of
$17,200. These penalties were imposed upon each contemner for
having either (1) joined as a party plaintiff in the United States
District Court case; (2) failed to request and contested the
dismissal of that case; (3) taken exceptions to the dismissal
preparatory to appealing to the Court of Appeals; or (4) filed a
separate action in the Federal District Court seeking to enjoin the
Supreme Court of Texas from interfering with
Page 377 U. S. 411
the original federal court suit. After the fines had been paid
and he had served his jail sentence, [Footnote 7
] counsel Donovan appeared in the District Court
on behalf of himself and all those who had been fined, and moved to
dismiss the appeal to the United States Court of Appeals. His
motion stated that it was made under duress, and that, unless the
motion was made,
"the Attorney for Defendant City of Dallas and the Chief Judge
of the Court of Civil Appeals have threatened these Appellants and
their Attorney with further prosecution for contempt, resulting in
additional fines and imprisonment."
The United States District Court then dismissed the appeal.
We declined to grant certiorari to review the United States
District Court's dismissal of the case before it or its dismissal
of the appeal brought on by the state court's coercive contempt
judgment, but we did grant certiorari to review the State Supreme
Court's judgment directing the Civil Court of Appeals to enjoin
petitioners from prosecuting their action in the federal courts,
and also granted certiorari to review the Civil Court of Appeals'
judgment of conviction for contempt. 375 U.S. 878. We think the
Texas Court of Civil Appeals was right in its first holding that it
was without power to enjoin these litigants from prosecuting their
federal court action, and we therefore reverse the State Supreme
Court's judgment upsetting that of the Court of Appeals. We vacate
the later contempt judgment of the Court of Civil Appeals,
Page 377 U. S. 412
which rested on the mistaken belief that the writ prohibiting
litigation by the federal plaintiffs was "valid."
Early in the history of our country, a general rule was
established that state and federal courts would not interfere with
or try to restrain each other's proceedings. [Footnote 9
] That rule has continued substantially
unchanged to this time. An exception has been made in cases where a
court has custody of property, that is, proceedings in rem
or quasi in rem.
In such cases, this Court has said that
the state or federal court having custody of such property has
exclusive jurisdiction to proceed. Princess Lida v.
Thompson, 305 U. S. 456
305 U. S.
-468. In Princess Lida,
this Court said,
"where the judgment sought is strictly in personam,
both the state court and the federal court, having concurrent
jurisdiction, may proceed with the litigation, at least until
judgment is obtained in one of them which may be set up as res
in the other."
at 305 U. S. 466
See also Kline v. Burke Construction Co., 260 U.
. It may be that a full hearing in an appropriate
court would justify a finding that the state court judgment in
favor of Dallas in the first suit barred the issues raised in the
second suit, a question as to which we express no opinion. But
plaintiffs in the second suit chose to file that case in the
federal court. They had a right to do this, a right which is theirs
by reason of congressional enactments passed pursuant to
congressional policy. And whether or not a plea of res
in the second suit would be good is a question for
the federal court to decide. While Congress has seen fit to
authorize courts of the United States to restrain state court
proceedings in some special circumstances, [Footnote 10
] it has in no way relaxed the old
and well established judicially declared
Page 377 U. S. 413
rule [Footnote 11
state courts are completely without power to restrain federal court
proceedings in in personam
actions like the one here. And
it does not matter that the prohibition here was addressed to the
parties, rather than to the federal court itself. For the heart of
the rule as declared by this Court is that:
". . . where the jurisdiction of a court, and the right of a
plaintiff to prosecute his suit in it, have once attached, that
right cannot be arrested or taken away by proceedings in another
court. . . . The fact, therefore, that an injunction issues only to
the parties before the court, and not to the court, is no evasion
of the difficulties that are the necessary result of an attempt to
exercise that power over a party who is a litigant in another and
independent forum. [Footnote
Petitioners, being properly in the federal court, had a right
granted by Congress to have the court decide the issues they
presented, and to appeal to the Court of Appeals from the District
Court's dismissal. They have been punished both for prosecuting
their federal court case and for appealing it. They dismissed their
appeal because of threats to punish them more if they did not do
so. The legal effect of such a coerced dismissal on their appeal is
not now before us, but the propriety of a state court's punishment
of a federal court litigant for pursuing his right to federal court
remedies is. That right was granted by Congress, and cannot be
taken away by the State. The Texas courts were without power to
Page 377 U. S. 414
take away this federal right by contempt proceedings or
otherwise. [Footnote 13
It is argued here, however, that the Court of Civil Appeals'
judgment of contempt should nevertheless be upheld on the premise
that it was petitioners' duty to obey the restraining order whether
that order was valid or invalid. The Court of Civil Appeals did not
consider or pass upon this question, but acted on the assumption
that petitioners were guilty of "willful disobedience of a
order." 368 S.W.2d at 244. (Emphasis supplied.)
Since we hold the order restraining petitioners from prosecuting
their case in the federal courts was not valid, but was invalid,
petitioners have been punished for disobeying an invalid order.
Whether the Texas court would have punished petitioners for
contempt had it known that the restraining order petitioners
violated was invalid we do not know. However, since that question
was neither considered nor decided by the Texas court, we leave it
for consideration by that court on remand. We express no opinion on
that question at this time.
The judgment of the Texas Supreme Court is reversed, the
judgment of the Texas Court of Civil Appeals is vacated, and the
case is remanded to the Court of Civil Appeals for further
proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
Atkinson v. City of Dallas,
353 S.W.2d 275
370 U.S. 939.
Vernon's Ann.Tex.Civ.Stat. Art. 1269j-5, § 3. See City of
Dallas v. Dixon, 365 S.W.2d 919
City of Dallas v. Brown,
362 S.W.2d 372
City of Dallas v. Dixon, 365 S.W.2d
City of Dallas v. Brown,
368 S.W.2d 240
While in jail, counsel Donovan sought habeas corpus from both
the Supreme Court of Texas and the United States Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit. Both courts denied relief without
The District Court, a week later, dismissed as moot the action
petitioners had brought in that court against the Supreme Court of
Texas to enjoin the Texas court from interfering with the
prosecution of the federal court suit. Donovan v. Supreme Court
unreported. We denied certiorari sought to review
that judgment, 375 U.S. 878.
See, e.g., 11 U. S.
7 Cranch 279; Diggs v.
4 Cranch 179.
28 U.S.C. § 2283; see also
28 U.S.C. §
See, e.g., 73 U. S. Council of
6 Wall. 514, 73 U. S. 517
Weber v. Lee
6 Wall. 2; Riggs v.
6 Wall. 166, 73 U. S.
-196; M'Kim v.
7 Cranch 279.
7 How. 612, 48 U. S. 625
See also Central National Bank v. Stevens, 169 U.
; cf. Baltimore & O. R. Co. v.
Kepner, 314 U. S. 44
314 U. S. 54
In Baltimore & O. R. Co. v. Kepner, 314 U. S.
, the Court did not reach the question before us,
since the decision there was rested on the special venue provisions
of the Federal Employers' Liability Act. See
36 Stat. 291,
as amended, 45 U.S.C. § 56.
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, whom MR. JUSTICE CLARK and MR. JUSTICE
STEWART join, dissenting.
The question presented by this case is not the general one
stated by the Court at the outset of its opinion, but
Page 377 U. S. 415
a much narrower one: may a state court enjoin resident state
court suitors from prosecuting in the federal courts vexatious,
duplicative litigation which has the effect of thwarting a state
court judgment already rendered against them? Given the Texas
Supreme Court's finding, amply supported by the record and in no
way challenged by this Court, that this controversy "has reached
the point of vexatious and harassing litigation," 365 S.W.2d 919
927, [Footnote 2/1
] I consider both
the state injunction and the ensuing contempt adjudication to have
been perfectly proper.
The power of a court in equity to enjoin persons subject to its
jurisdiction from conducting vexatious and harassing litigation in
another forum has not been doubted until now. In Cole v.
Cunningham, 133 U. S. 107
133 U. S. 111
this Court affirmed
"a decree of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
restraining citizens of that Commonwealth from the prosecution of
attachment suits in New York, brought by them for the purpose of
evading the laws of their domicile. . . ."
The Court stated:
"The jurisdiction of the English Court of Chancery to restrain
persons within its territorial limits and
Page 377 U. S. 416
under its jurisdiction from doing anything abroad, whether the
thing forbidden be a conveyance or other act in pais
the institution or the prosecution of an action in a foreign court,
is well settled."
at 133 U. S.
-117. The Court quoted with approval the following
passage from Mr. Justice Story's Equity Jurisprudence, Vol. II
(10th ed. 1870), 89:
"It is now held that whenever the parties are resident within a
country, the courts of that country have full authority to act upon
them personally with respect to the subject of suits in a foreign
country as the ends of justice may require, and with that view to
order them to take or to omit to take any steps and proceedings in
any other court of justice, whether in the same country or in any
foreign country. [Footnote
at 133 U. S. 119
See also Simon v. Southern R. Co., 236 U.
This Court, in 1941, expressly recognized the power of a state
court to do precisely what the Texas court did here. In
Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Kepner, 314 U. S.
, 314 U. S. 51
the Court, although denying the state court's power to issue an
injunction in that case, said:
"The real contention of petitioner is that, despite the admitted
venue, respondent is acting in a vexatious and inequitable manner
in maintaining the federal court suit in a distant jurisdiction
when a convenient and suitable forum is at respondent's
Page 377 U. S. 417
doorstep. Under such circumstances petitioner asserts power,
abstractly speaking, in the Ohio court to prevent a resident under
its jurisdiction from doing inequity. Such power does
(Footnote omitted; emphasis supplied.) Mr. Justice Frankfurter,
dissenting because of disagreement with the particular basis for
the Court's refusal to give effect to the general principle,
p. 377 U. S. 418
observed that the opinion of the Court did
"not deny the historic power of courts of equity to prevent a
misuse of litigation by enjoining resort to vexatious and
oppressive foreign suits,"
at 314 U. S. 55
] and that the
decision did not
"give new currency to the discredited notion that there is a
general lack of power in the state courts to enjoin proceedings in
at 314 U. S.
Apart from these express statements in both the majority and
dissenting opinions, the Court's reasoning in the Baltimore
& Ohio R. Co.
case clearly implies a view contrary to the
one taken by the majority here. Kepner, an injured employee of the
railroad, filed suit against it in the District Court for the
Eastern District of New York. The accident out of which his
injuries arose occurred in Ohio, which was also the State in which
he resided. Jurisdiction was based on the provision of the Federal
Employers' Liability Act which permitted an employee to bring suit
in a district in which the defendant was doing business. [Footnote 2/4
] The railroad brought a
Page 377 U. S. 418
in the Ohio state courts to enjoin Kepner from continuing to
prosecute his suit in the federal court in New York. It argued that
more appropriate state and federal courts were open, and that the
large cost to itself of defending the suit in a distant forum was
needless. Deciding solely on the basis that the venue provisions of
the Federal Employers' Liability Act gave an injured employee a
privilege which state legislative or judicial action could not
override, the Court denied the power of the Ohio courts to issue an
injunction. Quite evidently, this basis of decision would have been
meaningless unless it was presumed that, in the absence of the
venue provisions of the statute, the Ohio court would have had
power to enjoin. Nor is it even necessary to resort to this obvious
inference. For the Court made it express:
"As courts of equity admittedly possessed this power [to enjoin
improper resort to the courts of a foreign jurisdiction] before the
enactment of Section 6 [of the FELA]. . . ."
at 314 U. S. 53
See also Blanchard v. Commonwealth Oil Co.,
294 F.2d 834,
In light of the foregoing, there was no impropriety in the
issuance of the state court's injunction in the present case.
None of the cases on which the Court relies deals with, or in
any way negatives, the power of a state court to enjoin federal
litigation in circumstances such as those involved here. None of
them was concerned with vexatious litigation.
Kline v. Burke Construction Co., 260 U.
, 260 U. S. 230
p. 377 U. S. 412
held, with respect to state and federal courts, that
"where the action first brought is in personam
seeks only a personal judgment, another action for the same cause
in another jurisdiction is not precluded."
The dictum from Princess Lida v. Thompson, 305 U.
, 305 U. S. 466
which the Court quotes (ante,
p. 377 U. S.
), is to the same effect. In neither case is there
any discussion of a court's power in equity to prevent persons
subject to its jurisdiction from maintaining vexatious and
harassing suits elsewhere. Moreover, the opinions in both cases
explain the rule permitting state and federal courts to issue
injunctions protective of their jurisdiction in in rem
actions -- a rule which the Court here does not question, see
p. 377 U. S. 412
-- on the ground that the rule is necessary to permit the court
which first acquires jurisdiction over the subject matter of a
controversy "effectively [to] exercise the jurisdiction vested in
it . . . ," Princess Lida, supra,
at 305 U. S. 467
See Kline, supra,
at 260 U. S. 229
That reasoning is fully applicable here, since maintenance of the
Page 377 U. S. 420
the federal court has the automatic effect of nullifying the
Texas court's decree.
The Court cites three cases for the proposition that it is
immaterial, for purposes of this case, that the Texas court's
injunction runs to the parties, rather than to the District Court.
p. 377 U. S. 413
note 12. None of them is apposite. In Peck v.
7 How. 612, the question, as in Diggs,
was whether a federal court "was vested with any power
or authority to oust" a state court of its properly established
jurisdiction over a cause commenced in the state court long before
any action was taken in the federal court. Id.
48 U. S. 624
Central National Bank v. Stevens, 169 U.
, again involved a state court's attempt to enjoin
private individuals from giving effect to the final decree of a
federal court rendered before the suit was begun in the state
court. Baltimore & Ohio R. Co. v. Kepner, supra,
already been discussed; it is expressly and by unmistakable
implication directly contrary to the result now reached by the
There can be no dispute, therefore, that all the weight of
authority, including that of a recent pronouncement of this Court,
is contrary to the position which the Court takes in this case. It
is not necessary to comment on the Court's assertion,
p. 377 U. S. 413
that the petitioners "had a right granted by Congress" to maintain
their suit in the federal court, for that is the very question at
issue. In any event, the statutory boundaries of federal
jurisdiction are hardly to be regarded as a license to conduct
litigation in the federal courts for the purpose of harassment.
Page 377 U. S. 421
The exception which the Court recognizes for in rem
actions demonstrates that no such view of federal jurisdiction is
tenable, for, in those cases too, the federal courts have statutory
jurisdiction to proceed.
In short, today's decision rests upon confusion between two
distinct lines of authority in this Court, one involving vexatious
litigation and the other not.
I would affirm.
Under Texas law, the mere filing of suit in the Federal District
Court prevented the issuance of bonds to finance construction at
Love Field, the Dallas municipal airport. The City's right to issue
such bonds had been upheld in Atkinson v. City of Dallas,
353 S.W.2d 275, a case which both the Supreme Court of Texas and
this Court (370 U.S. 939) declined to review. As found by the
Supreme Court of Texas,
"[a]n analysis of the petition in Brown
Court case] discloses that the issues sought to be litigated are
essentially the same as the issues litigated in Atkinson,
and the prayer is for the same ultimate relief."
365 S.W.2d at 927. In an oral opinion dismissing the action in
the Federal District Court, the district judge found the same
"In my opinion there is no justiciable issue to be presented in
the Federal court case. All the issues have been decided in the
In the next sentence, Story stated that there was an exception
to this doctrine, based "upon peculiar grounds of municipal and
constitutional law;" state courts could not enjoin proceedings in
federal courts, and vice versa. Ibid.
It is apparent from
the cases cited to support this exception that Story had in mind
the kind of situation presented in cases like those relied on by
the present majority, which, as will be shown in Part II of this
pp. 377 U. S.
-421, deal not with injunctions to prevent vexatious
litigation, but with injunctions issued in very different contexts.
at 89, notes 2-4.
Many decisions of the state courts have recognized this
equitable power. See, e.g., O'Haire v. Burns,
432, 1 P. 755; Royal League v. Kavanagh,
233 Ill. 175, 84
N.E. 178; Oates v. Morningside College,
217 Iowa 59, 252
N.W. 783; Pere Marquette Railway v. Slutz,
268 Mich. 388,
256 N.W. 458; Wilser v. Wilser,
132 Minn. 167, 156 N.W.
"Under this chapter, an action may be brought in a district
court of the United States, in the district of the residence of the
defendant, or in which the cause of action arose, or in which the
defendant shall be doing business at the time of commencing such
action. The jurisdiction of the courts of the United States under
this chapter shall be concurrent with that of the courts of the
Act of April 5, 19, 36 Stat. 291, as amended, 45 U.S.C. §
As the cases cited in 377 U. S.
Court's power to review judgments of the state courts is available
to prevent interference with the legitimate invocation of federal
jurisdiction. The parallel development of the two distinct lines of
cases which are now confused for the first time itself demonstrates
that the possibility of abuse in some cases is no ground for
denying altogether the traditional equitable power to prevent
improper resort to the courts.