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

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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.

Primary Holding
Only if the defendant will face irreparable harm should a federal court intervene in proceedings that are already underway in state court.
After being indicted in a state court for violating the California Criminal Syndicalism Act, Harris sought an injunction from a federal court against District Attorney Younger that would prevent him from continuing to pursue the case. The action in federal court was based on alleged violations of First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by the prosecution and the existence of the Act. Harris succeeded in persuading the federal court that the Act was overly broad and vague, which meant that it was unconstitutional under the First Amendment. He received the injunction, but Younger argued on appeal that policy reasons prevent federal courts from enjoining pending state court proceedings.



  • Hugo Lafayette Black (Author)
  • Warren Earl Burger
  • John Marshall Harlan II
  • Potter Stewart
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun

The defendant could have raised these constitutional issues in the state court proceeding that already was underway. There was no allegation that the prosecutor had brought the proceedings in bad faith or was maliciously seeking to harass the defendant. A potential chilling effect on First Amendment rights does not justify interfering with proceedings in state courts, especially since an injunction by a federal court does not necessarily forestall the chilling effect. A statute that has only an incidental rather than a direct impact on free speech may survive if the effect is relatively minor in proportion to the importance of controlling the conduct. Preventing a good-faith attempt to enforce a law that has a small possibility of being unconstitutional on its face does not justify an injunction. The defendant cannot show that he would suffer the type of harm that would merit an equitable remedy, since there is no evidence of bad faith, harassment, or similarly extreme circumstances.


  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • Thurgood Marshall

The state criminal proceedings arising from the defendant's indictment began before he brought the action in federal court. His constitutional concerns can be adequately resolved in state court.


  • Potter Stewart (Author)
  • John Marshall Harlan II

A federal court that is contemplating intervening in a civil proceeding in a state court might consider different factors. This decision applies only to criminal prosecutions in state court.


  • William Orville Douglas (Author)

While federal courts generally should not intervene in state criminal proceedings, the exception created by Dombrowski v. Pfister (1965) applies. It arises when criminal statutes are overly broad, such as is the case here. The state law defined criminal syndicalism so broadly that it might criminalize teaching that socialism is better than a free market. Since the defendant already tried and failed to have the indictment dismissed in the state courts, he was justified in approaching the federal court to seek the dismissal of an unconstitutional prosecution.

Case Commentary

This type of intervention may be available in cases that affect the freedom of expression or other First Amendment rights, often involving political demonstrations.

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