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Law School Case Brief

Rescue Army v. Mun. Court of L.A. - 331 U.S. 549, 67 S. Ct. 1409 (1947)


Jurisdiction in the Supreme Court of the United States should be exerted only when the jurisdictional question presented by a proceeding in prohibition tenders the underlying constitutional issues in clean-cut and concrete form, unclouded by any serious problem of construction relating either to the terms of the questioned legislation or to its interpretation by the state courts.


Petitioner Murdock was an officer of petitioner The Rescue Army, which was a charitable organization. The City of Los Angeles, California, had an ordinance that regulated the solicitation of charitable contributions. In two prior prosecutions, Murdock was charged with and convicted of violating the ordinance. Both convictions, however, were reversed by the appellate court. Murdock was then charged for the third time for violating the ordinance. Pending that trial, Murdock and The Rescue Army filed a petition with for a writ of prohibition restraining respondent Municipal Court of Los Angeles from trying Murdock for violating the ordinance. Murdock asserted that the ordinance was unconstitutional. The state supreme court denied the writ of prohibition. The court ruled that the ordinance was constitutional and that in the absence of facts showing that the ordinance was being unconstitutionally applied to Murdock and The Rescue Army, they were not entitled to a writ to prohibit a trial for violation of the ordinance. Murdock and The Rescue Army appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.


Should the Court grant the writ of prohibition?




The Court dismissed the appeal without prejudice. The Court held first noted that although further criminal proceedings against Murdock were still pending, the state supreme court's judgment was a final one because the petition for prohibition and the criminal case were separate cases. Thus, the Court had jurisdiction over Murdock's appeal. However, the state supreme court's ruling as to Murdock was ambiguous, and it referred to another prosecution against another charity that was before the court at the same time as Murdock's case. The exact charges against Murdock were unclear, and the question before the Court was in the abstract. Therefore, under the Court's long-standing policy that constitutional questions should not be decided unless absolutely necessary, the Court declined to exercise its jurisdication.

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