Younger v. Harris creates an important exception to the federal enforcement of civil rights. Younger held that a federal court could not enjoin an ongoing state criminal prosecution, even when the statute under which the prosecution was occurring violated federal constitutional rights. Instead, the federal court was required to ‘‘abstain’’ from hearing the case, and allow the constitutional issues to be addressed in the criminal proceeding. Subsequent cases have expanded the scope of this doctrine, generally called ‘‘Younger abstention.’’
The case arose in 1966, when John Harris Jr. was passing out Progressive Party leaflets suggesting that a Los Angeles police officer had murdered a Watts resident, that local factories failed to employ Watts residents, and that people should take action. Harris was indicted for violating California’s antisyndicalism law. The law made illegal the advocacy of doctrines that sought the violent overthrow of industrial ownership or the political order; it was, in essence, anticommunism legislation. Shortly afterward, Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) declared nearly identical legislation unconstitutional under the First and FourteenthAmendments (see Brandenburg v. Ohio), but Harris did not have the benefit of that case. Harris unsuccessfully raised the statute’s unconstitutionality in the criminal proceedings. Facing an imminent trial, he turned to federal court. He sued the county prosecutor, Evelle Younger, seeking an injunction that prohibited Younger from prosecuting him.
A three-judge district court held the statute unconstitutionally vague and issued the injunction. Younger appealed. The Supreme Court held that the injunction should not have been issued. Writing for the Court, Justice Black focused on two reasons. First, retreating into history, the Court noted that injunctions were a remedy available only in equity. An injunction could not be issued if an adequate remedy existed in common law; in particular, equity did not issue injunctions against criminal proceedings. Second, Justice Black feared that federal injunctions against ongoing state proceedings would interfere with ‘‘an even more vital consideration, the notion of ‘comity,’ that is, a proper respect for state functions....’’ Justice Black famously encapsulated, and capitalized, this argument by discussing the need to ‘‘remain loyal to the ideals and dreams of ‘Our Federalism.’’’ Justices Brennan and Marshall concurred. There were no dissents.
Later cases have defined the contours of Younger abstention. It has been extended to some civil proceedings, especially quasicriminal enforcement proceedings. Younger abstention also applies when the federal case is filed first, but the state case is filed shortly afterwards.
The idea that federal courts must decline to enforce federal constitutional rights seems counterintuitive. The constitutional right can be raised in the state proceeding, and thereafter the Supreme Court might hear the issue on certiorari. Younger also stated that a federal court need not abstain if the prosecution threatens an irreparable injury or if it is undertaken in bad faith. Nonetheless, Younger means that, in many cases, no federal court will hear a claim of federal constitutional violation.
Harris himself received his vindication in state court. In light of Brandenburg, a California court ordered him released from custody in 1971.
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited