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U.S. Supreme Court

Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Organization, 441 U.S. 600 (1979)

Chapman v. Houston Welfare Rights Organization

No. 77-719

Argued October 2, 1978

Decided May 14, 1979*

441 U.S. 600


Under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(3), federal district courts have jurisdiction over civil actions "authorized by law" claiming a deprivation, under color of state law, of rights "secured by the Constitution of the United States or by any Act of Congress providing for equal rights," and under § 1343(4) have jurisdiction over such actions seeking relief under "any Act of Congress providing for the protection of civil rights, including the right to vote." Petitioner in No. 77-5324 brought suit in Federal District Court claiming that New Jersey officials, by denying her emergency assistance funds because she was not "in a state of homelessness" as required by the relevant state regulations, had deprived her of a right to such assistance "necessary to avoid destitution" within the meaning of § 406(e)(1) of the federal Social Security Act. The District Court held, inter alia, that the complaint stated a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (which provides that every person who, under color of any state statute or regulation subjects another to the deprivation of any rights "secured by the Constitution and laws" shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law or suit in equity), and that it had jurisdiction under §§ 1343(3) and (4). The Court of Appeals held that the District Court should have dismissed the complaint for want of jurisdiction; that a constitutional claim must involve more than a contention that the Supremacy Clause requires that a federal statute be given effect over conflicting state law; that the Social Security Act is not an Act of Congress securing either "equal rights" or "civil rights" as those terms are used in § 1343; and that those terms limit the grant of federal jurisdiction under § 1343 even if § 1983 creates a remedy for a broader category of statutory claims. Respondents in No. 77-719 brought a class action in Federal District Court claiming that Texas

Page 441 U. S. 601

regulations requiring that Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits be reduced if the recipient shares a household with a nondependent person violate § 402(a)(7) of the Social Security Act and implementing regulations. The District Court's judgment upholding the Texas regulations was reversed by the Court of Appeals, but the appellate court held that the District Court had jurisdiction under § 1343(4), since § 1983 is an Act of Congress providing for the protection of civil rights within the meaning of the jurisdictional grant.

Held: Federal district courts' jurisdiction under §§ 1343(3) and (4) does not encompass claims, such as those involved here, that a state welfare regulation is invalid because it conflicts with the Social Security Act, and hence the District Court in neither case had jurisdiction. Pp 441 U. S. 607-623.

(a) To give meaning to § 1343, it must be concluded that an allegation of incompatibility between federal and state statutes and regulations does not, in itself, give rise to a claim "secured by the Constitution" within the meaning of § 1343(3). The entire reference in § 1343(3) to rights secured by an Act of Congress would be unnecessary if the earlier reference to constitutional claims embraced those resting solely on the Supremacy Clause, and, more importantly, the additional language describing a limited category of Acts of Congress -- those "providing for equal rights" -- plainly negates the notion that jurisdiction over al statutory claims had already been conferred by the preceding reference to constitutional claims. Pp. 441 U. S. 612-615.

(b) Section 1983 is not a statute that secures "equal rights" or "civil rights" within the meaning of § 1343. One cannot go into court and claim "a violation of § 1983," for § 1983, by itself, does not protect anyone against anything, but simply provides a remedy. While § 1983, when properly invoked, satisfies the first requirement of § 1343(3) that the civil action be "authorized by law," it cannot satisfy the second requirement that the action be one to redress the deprivation of rights "secured by the Constitution of the United States or by an Act of Congress providing for equal rights." Since § 1983 does not provide any substantive rights at all, it is not a statute "providing for the protection of civil rights, including the right to vote" within the meaning of § 1343(4), and, moreover, to construe § 1343(4) as encompassing all federal statutory suits would be plainly inconsistent with the congressional intent in passing that statute to ensure federal court jurisdiction over authorized suits by the Attorney General against conspiracies to deprive individuals of certain enumerated rights. Pp. 441 U. S. 615-620.

(c) Section 1343 does not confer federal jurisdiction over claims based on the Social Security Act, since that Act is not a statute securing

Page 441 U. S. 602

"equal rights" within § 1343(3) or "civil rights" within § 1343(4). While the provisions of the Act at issue here, to the extent that they prescribe a minimum level of subsistence for all individuals, might be regarded as securing either "equal rights" or "civil rights," these terms have a more restrictive meaning as used in § 1343. Pp. 441 U. S. 620-623.

No. 77-5324, 560 F.2d 160, affirmed; No. 77-719, 555 F.2d 1219, reversed and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BLACKMUN, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. POWELL, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which BURGER, C.J.,and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 441 U. S. 623. WHITE, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 441 U. S. 646. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in all but n. 2 of which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 441 U. S. 672. BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., filed a separate statement, post, p. 441 U. S. 676.

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