NAACP V. BUTTON, 371 U. S. 415 (1963)

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U.S. Supreme Court

NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415 (1963)

National Association for the Advancement

of Colored People v. Button

No. 5

Argued November 8,1961

Restored to the calendar for reargument April 2, 1962

Reargued October 9, 1962

Decided January 14, 1963

371 U.S. 415


1. Petitioner sued in a Federal District Court to enjoin enforcement of a Virginia statute on the ground that, as applied to it, the statute violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The District Court abstained from passing on the validity of the statute pending an authoritative interpretation of it by the state courts, but it retained jurisdiction. Petitioner then applied to a state court for a binding adjudication of all of its claims and a permanent injunction and declaratory relief, and it made no reservation to the disposition of the entire case by the state courts. A state trial court held the statute to be both constitutional and applicable to petitioner, and this decision was affirmed by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Petitioner then petitioned this Court for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, and this Court granted certiorari.

Held: The District Court's reservation of jurisdiction was purely formal; it did not impair the jurisdiction of this Court to review an otherwise final state court judgment; the judgment below was "final," within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. § 1257, and the case is properly before this Court. Pp. 371 U. S. 427-428.

2. Chapter 33 of the Virginia Acts of Assembly, Extra Sess. 1956, amended former statutes defining and punishing malpractice by attorneys so as to broaden the definition of solicitation of legal business to include acceptance of employment or compensation from any person or organization not a party to a judicial proceeding and having no pecuniary right or liability in it. It also made it an offense for any such person or organization to solicit business for any attorney. Petitioner, a corporation whose major purpose was the elimination of racial discrimination, sued in a state court to enjoin enforcement of this Chapter and for a declaratory judgment

Page 371 U. S. 416

that, as applied to petitioner, its affiliates, officers, members, attorneys retained or paid by it, and litigants to whom it might give assistance in cases involving racial discrimination, the Chapter violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court found that petitioner, through its State Conference, had formed a legal staff to direct actions pertaining to racial discrimination; urged the institution of suits to challenge racial discrimination; offered the services of attorneys selected and paid by it and its affiliates; and, with its affiliates, controlled the conduct of such litigation.

Held: The activities of petitioner, its affiliates and legal staff shown on this record are modes of expression and association protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments which Virginia may not prohibit, under its power to regulate the legal profession, as improper solicitation of legal business violative of Chapter 33 and the Canons of Professional Ethics. Pp. 371 U. S. 417-445.

(a) Although petitioner is a corporation, it may assert its right and that of its members and lawyers to associate for the purpose of assisting persons who seek legal redress for infringement of their constitutionally guaranteed rights. P. 371 U. S. 428.

(b) Abstract discussion is not the only species of communication which the Constitution protects; the First Amendment also protects vigorous advocacy, certainly of lawful ends, against governmental intrusion. P. 371 U. S. 429.

(c) In the context of petitioner's objectives, litigation is not a means of resolving private differences; it is a form of political expression, and a means for achieving the lawful objectives of equality of treatment by all governments, federal, state and local, for the members of the Negro community. Pp. 371 U. S. 429-430.

(d) In order to find constitutional protection for the kind of cooperative, organizational activity disclosed by this record, it is not necessary to subsume such activity under a narrow, literal conception of freedom of speech, petition or assembly, for there is no longer any doubt that the First and Fourteenth Amendments protect certain forms of orderly group activity. Pp. 371 U. S. 430-431.

(e) Under Chapter 33, as authoritatively construed by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, a person who advises another that his legal rights have been infringed and refers him to a particular attorney or group of attorneys for assistance has committed a crime, as has the attorney who knowingly renders assistance under such circumstances; there thus inheres in the statute the gravest danger of smothering all discussion looking to the eventual institution of

Page 371 U. S. 417

litigation on behalf of the rights of Negroes; and, as so construed, Chapter 33 violates the Fourteenth Amendment by unduly inhibiting protected freedoms of expression and association. Pp. 371 U. S. 431-438.

(f) It is no answer to the constitutional claims asserted by petitioner to say, as did the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, that the purpose of this statute was merely to insure high professional standards, and not to curtail freedom of expression, for a State may not, under the guise of prohibiting professional misconduct, ignore constitutional rights. Pp. 371 U. S. 438-439.

(g) However valid may be Virginia's interest in regulating the traditionally illegal practices of barratry, maintenance and champerty, that interest does not justify the prohibition of petitioner's activities disclosed by this record. Pp. 371 U. S. 439-443.

(h) Resort to the courts to seek vindication of constitutional rights is a different matter from the oppressive, malicious, or avaricious use of the legal process for purely private gain. Pp. 371 U. S. 443-444.

(i) Although petitioner has amply shown that its activities fall within the protection of the First Amendment, the State has failed to advance any substantial regulatory interest, in the form of substantive evils flowing from petitioner's activities, which can justify the broad prohibitions which. it has imposed. P. 371 U. S. 444.

202 Va. 142, 116 S.E.2d 55, reversed.

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