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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Mesquite v. Aladdin's Castle, Inc., 455 U.S. 283 (1982)

City of Mesquite v. Aladdin's Castle, Inc.

No. 80-1577

Argued November 10, 1981

Decided February 23, 1982

455 U.S. 283


Section 6 of appellant Texas city's licensing ordinance governing coin-operated amusement establishments directs the Chief of Police to consider whether a license applicant has any "connections with criminal elements." After receiving recommendations from the Chief of Police, the Chief Building Inspector, and the City Planner, the City Manager decides whether to grant a license. If he denies the license, the applicant may appeal to the City Council. If the City Manager denied the application because of the Chief of Police's adverse recommendation as to the applicant's character, the applicant must show to the City Council that he or it is of good character. Section 5 of the ordinance prohibits a licensee from allowing children under 17 years of age to operate amusement devices unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. After appellant had been ordered in Texas state court proceedings to issue appellee amusement center operator a license (its license application having been initially denied under the predecessor to § 6), and after appellant had repealed appellee's exemption from the predecessor to § 5, appellee brought suit in Federal District Court, praying for an injunction against enforcement of the ordinance. The District Court held that § 6 was unconstitutionally vague, but upheld § 5. The Court of Appeals affirmed as to § 6, basing its holding solely on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but reversed as to § 5, basing its holding on the Texas Constitution, as well as on the Fourteenth Amendment.


1. The fact that the phrase "connections with criminal elements" was eliminated from the ordinance while the case was pending in the Court of Appeals does not render the case moot. A defendant's voluntary cessation of a challenged practice does not deprive a federal court of its power to determine the legality of the practice. Here, appellant's repeal of the objectionable language would not preclude it from reenacting the same provision if the District Court's judgment were vacated. Pp. 455 U. S. 288-289.

2. The Court of Appeals erred in holding that § 6 is unconstitutionally vague. It is clear, from the procedure to be followed when an application for a license is denied by the City Manager based on the Chief of Police's recommendation, that the phrase "connections with criminal elements" is

Page 455 U. S. 284

not the standard for approval or disapproval of the application. Rather, the applicant's possible connection with criminal elements is merely a subject that § 6 directs the Chief of Police to investigate before he makes a recommendation to the City Manager. The Federal Constitution does not preclude a city from giving vague or ambiguous directions to officials who are authorized to make investigations and recommendations. Pp. 455 U. S. 289-291.

3. Because Congress has limited this Court's jurisdiction to review questions of state law, and because there is ambiguity in the Court of Appeals' holding as to § 5, a remand for clarification of that holding is necessary. This Court will not decide the federal constitutional question connected with § 5 where (a) the relevant language of the Texas constitutional provisions is different from, and arguably significantly broader than, the language of the corresponding federal provisions; (b) it is unclear whether this Court would apply, as a matter of federal law, the same standard applied as a matter of state law by the Court of Appeals in reviewing § 5; and (c) it is this Court's policy to avoid unnecessary adjudication of federal constitutional questions, there being no need for decision of the federal issue here if Texas law provides independent support for the Court of Appeals' judgment. Pp. 455 U. S. 291-295.

630 F.2d 1029, reversed in part and remanded.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and BRENNAN, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., post, p. 455 U. S. 296, and POWELL, J., post, p. 455 U. S. 297, filed opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part.

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