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Law School Case Brief

Walker v. Birmingham - 388 U.S. 307, 87 S. Ct. 1824 (1967)


An injunction duly issuing out of a court of general jurisdiction with equity powers upon pleadings properly invoking its action, and served upon persons made parties therein and within the jurisdiction, must be obeyed by them however erroneous the action of the court may be, even if the error be in the assumption of the validity of a seeming but void law going to the merits of the case. It is for the court of first instance to determine the question of the validity of the law, and until its decision is reversed for error by orderly review, either by itself or by a higher court, its orders based on its decision are to be respected, and disobedience of them is contempt of its lawful authority, to be punished. 


The Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Alabama, granted a temporary injunction enjoining petitioners Wyatt Tee Walker and others from, among other things, participating in or encouraging mass street parades or mass processions without a permit as required by Birmingham, Ala., City Code §1159, an ordinance enacted by defendant City of Birmingham ("City"). Requests for such a permit had already been denied, and petitioners made no further requests after the injunction issued, nor did they move to dissolve the injunction, but they encouraged and participated in civil rights marches which were conducted 1 and 3 days, respectively, after petitioners were notified of the injunction. Holding that it had had jurisdiction to issue the temporary injunction and that petitioners had knowingly violated it, the circuit court found petitioners guilty of contempt and sentenced each of them to 5 days in jail and a $ 50 fine. Both the circuit court and the Supreme Court of Alabama, which affirmed petitioners' convictions, refused to consider petitioners' constitutional attacks on the injunction and the parade ordinance. Petitioners were granted a writ of certiorari.


Was it proper for the circuit court to convict petitioners of contempt?




The Supreme Court of the United States affirmed the state supreme court's decision. The Court held that since the circuit court had jurisdiction over petitioners and over the subject matter of the controversy, petitioners could properly be held in contempt for disobeying the injunction, even though the injunction and the parade ordinance were unquestionably subject to substantial constitutional question. The Court also rejected petitioners' argument that § 1159 was unconstitutional. The Court applied the rule that a statute was not unconstitutional until it was judicially deemed as such. Because § 1159 had not been declared unconstitutional, and petitioners failed to seek to dissolve, modify, or otherwise to challenge the injunction, or the underlying ordinance, they could not complain about the subsequent contempt citation. Similarly, petitioners could not challenge the administration of the ordinance because they failed to seek a permit. Had they done so, and been denied a permit, they might have been able to show that the administration of § 1159 was arbitrary.

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