Law School Case Brief
Steffel v. Thompson - 415 U.S. 452, 94 S. Ct. 1209 (1974)
The rule in federal cases is that an actual controversy must be extant at all stages of review, not merely at the time the complaint is filed. When a prosecution under a state criminal statute has been threatened, but is not pending, federal declaratory relief is not precluded in a federal court action challenging the constitutionality of the state statute, even though there is no showing of bad faith enforcement or other special circumstances.
Petitioner-Plaintiff, with others, instituted an action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, seeking a declaratory judgment under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act, 18 U.S.C.S. § 2201, that the Georgia criminal trespass statute was being applied in violation of the plaintiff's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Petitioner-Plaintiff also sought an injunction restraining certain county officials and the owner and manager of a certain shopping center from interfering with his right to distribute handbills at the shopping center protesting American involvement in Vietnam. On two occasions, he had stopped distributing handbills on an exterior sidewalk at the shopping center when warned by police that he would be arrested if he refused to stop or if he resumed handbilling. His companion was arrested and charged with violating the state statute when she continued handbilling. The District Court denied relief for lack of an active controversy because there was no showing that the state was acting in bad faith. On the petitioner-plaintiff's appeal from the denial of declaratory relief only, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment denying declaratory relief, holding that bad faith enforcement or other special circumstances must be established in order to obtain either declaratory or injunctive relief in a federal court against a pending state court criminal prosecution under a challenged state criminal statute.
Did the Court of Appeals err in denying the declaratory relief for lack of an active controversy?
On certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals because the abstention doctrine, precluding federal action to restrain a pending state criminal proceeding, did not apply where no prosecution had taken place. Because petitioner-plaintiff alleged an actual threat of prosecution, a case or controversy existed for purposes of declaratory relief. When no state prosecution was pending and a genuine threat of enforcement of the disputed statute had been made, federal declaratory relief was not precluded whether the constitutionality of the statute was challenged on its face or as it applied to petitioner-plaintiff.
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