• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court reinforced the doctrine of abstention, prohibiting federal judges from intervening in most state court proceedings before they have been finalized.

During the controversial Vietnam War, John Harris, Jr., was indicted in a California court for violating a criminal syndicalism statute that was virtually identical to the law that had been ruled unconstitutional in Brandenburg v. Ohio[case]Brandenburg v. Ohio[Brandenburg v. Ohio] (1969). Finding that the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments, a three-judge federal court issued an injunction restraining district attorney Evelle Younger from prosecuting Harris.Abstention doctrine;Younger v. Harris[Younger v. Harris]Federalism;Younger v. Harris[Younger v. Harris]

Justice William O. Douglas wrote a dissent in Younger, arguing that federal courts should use special vigilance during periods of repression to protect those asserting their First Amendment rights in unpopular causes.

(Library of Congress)

By an 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court lifted the injunction. Justice Hugo L. Black’sBlack, Hugo L.;Younger v. Harris[Younger v. Harris] opinion for the majority emphasized the concept of comity, which requires mutual respect between federal and state governments. A long-established policy prohibited federal courts from interfering with state proceedings except under very limited conditions, as when expressly authorized by an act of Congress or when a person could show a likely danger of irreparable damages. In contrast to the exception allowed in Dombrowski v. Pfister[case]Dombrowski v. Pfister[Dombrowski v. Pfister] (1965), Black concluded that Harris had not shown that state officials were guilty of bad faith or harassment. The possibility that a prosecution might create a chilling effect on free speech was not an adequate reason to justify a federal injunction. Black also argued that the federal courts should not pass judgments on state statutes without the benefit of interpretations of the state courts.

Dissenting, Justice William O. Douglas argued that the logic of Dombrowski required the federal courts to use special vigilance in periods of repression when enormous sanctions were imposed on those “who assert their First Amendment Rights in unpopular causes.”

Brandenburg v. Ohio

Dombrowski v. Pfister

Federalism

Judicial review

State courts

Categories: History Content