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Dombrowski v. Pfister


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380 U.S. 499 (1965), argued 25 Jan. 1965, decided 26 Apr. 1965 by vote of 5 to 2; Brennan for the Court, Harlan, joined by Clark, in dissent, Black and Stewart not participating. Dombrowski, an officer of the Southern Conference Educational Fund, sought an injunction against the governor of Louisiana, law enforcement officers, and the chairman of the state's Legislative Joint Committee on Un-American Activities for prosecuting or threatening to prosecute his organization under several state subversion statutes. Dombrowski alleged that the statutes violated the First Amendment and that he and his civil rights colleagues were subjected to continuous harassment, including arrests without intent to prosecute and seizures of necessary internal documents.

A three-judge federal court dismissed the complaint, holding that Dombrowski had not demonstrated the required irreparable injury and that this was a case for invocation of the “abstention doctrine” to permit the state courts to interpret the statutes consistent with the federal Constitution.

The Supreme Court reversed. Justice William Brennan's opinion held that the statutes clearly violated the First Amendment. Further, he argued that the continuous threats of prosecution, seizure of records, and harassment sufficiently chilled free expression to justify federal court intervention. Injunctive relief in these circumstances was clearly appropriate as an exception to the general rule against federal court intervention in state criminal prosecutions. In dissent, Justice John Harlan argued that permitting federal court intervention, even under these circumstances, was a significant and unwarranted departure from the principle of comity and a threat to the integrity of the federal system.

Dombrowski, seen by civil rights lawyers as a loophole in the traditional principle of nonintervention, unleashed a torrent of lawsuits seeking federal court protection against state prosecutions. The loophole, however, proved only temporary; the Supreme Court closed it substantially in Younger v. Harris (1971).

Charles H. Sheldon

Subjects: Law.


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