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Law School Case Brief

Poe v. Ullman - 367 U.S. 497, 81 S. Ct. 1752 (1961)


Federal judicial power is to be exercised to strike down legislation, whether state or federal, only at the instance of one who is himself immediately harmed, or immediately threatened with harm, by the challenged action. Courts can have no right to pronounce an abstract opinion upon the constitutionality of a state law. Such law must be brought into actual or threatened operation upon rights properly falling under judicial cognizance, or a remedy is not to be had. The party who invokes the power to annul legislation on grounds of its unconstitutionality must be able to show not only that the statute is invalid but that he has sustained or is immediately in danger of sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement.


The constitutionality of Connecticut statutes prescribing criminal penalties for any person using any contraceptive drug or device and any accessory to such a use was challenged in declaratory judgment suits, by married couples who were unable to obtain advice as to use of contraceptives from their physician, and by a physician who was unable to give his married patients advice as to use of contraceptives because of the statutes. The Superior Court, New Haven County, Connecticut, in which the suits were instituted, sustained demurrers to plaintiffs' complaint, and its action was upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court of Errors . The state supreme court held that the statutes were applicable to married couples even under a claim that conception would constitute a serious threat to the health or life of the female spouse. 


Should the federal court review the case?




The U.S. Supreme Court held that the mere existence of a state penal statute constituted insufficient grounds to support a federal court's adjudication of its constitutionality in proceedings brought against the state's prosecuting officials if real threat of enforcement was wanting. Prosecutors in the state had not prosecuted anyone for violation of the statute, and the patients and the doctor were not in any danger of immediately sustaining some direct injury as the result of its enforcement. The Court dismissed the action.

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