U.S. Supreme Court

N. A. A. C. P. v. BUTTON, 371 U.S. 415 (1963)

371 U.S. 415

Argued November 8, 1961. Restored to the calendar for reargument April 2, 1962. Reargued October 9, 1962.
Decided January 14, 1963.

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. 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 [371 U.S. 415, 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. 417-445.

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

Robert L. Carter reargued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Frank D. Reeves.

Henry T. Wickham reargued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief was David J. Mays.

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case originated in companion suits by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Inc. (NAACP), and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (Defense Fund), brought in 1957 in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The suits sought to restrain the enforcement of Chapters 31, 32, 33, 35 and 36 of the Virginia Acts of Assembly, 1956 Extra Session, on the ground that the [371 U.S. 415, 418]statutes, as applied to the activities of the plaintiffs, violated the Fourteenth Amendment. A three-judge court convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 2281, after hearing evidence and making fact-findings, struck down Chapters 31, 32 and 35 but abstained from passing upon the validity of Chapters 33 and 36 pending an authoritative interpretation of these statutes by the Virginia courts. The complainants thereupon petitioned in the Circuit Court of the City of Richmond to declare Chapters 33 and 36 inapplicable to their activities, or, if applicable, unconstitutional. The record in the Circuit Court was that made before the three-judge court supplemented by additional evidence. The Circuit Court held the chapters to be both applicable and constitutional. The holding was sustained by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals as to Chapter 33, but reversed as to Chapter 36, which was held unconstitutional under both state and federal law. Thereupon the Defense Fund returned to the Federal District Court, where its case is presently pending, while the NAACP filed the instant petition. We granted certiorari [365 U.S. 842]. We heard argument in the 1961 Term [371 U.S. 415, 419] and ordered reargument this Term. [369 U.S. 833]. Since no cross-petition was filed to review the Supreme Court of Appeals' disposition of Chapter 36, the only issue before us is the constitutionality of Chapter 33 as applied to the activities of the NAACP.

There is no substantial dispute as to the facts; the dispute centers about the constitutionality under the Fourteenth Amendment of Chapter 33, as construed and applied by the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to include NAACP's activities within the statute's ban against "the improper solicitation of any legal or professional business."

The NAACP was formed in 1909 and incorporated under New York law as a nonprofit membership corporation in 1911. It maintains its headquarters in New York and presently has some 1,000 active unincorporated branches throughout the Nation. The corporation is licensed to do business in Virginia, and has 89 branches there. The Virginia branches are organized into the Virginia State Conference of NAACP Branches (the Conference), an unincorporated association, which in 1957 had some 13,500 members. The activities of the Conference are financed jointly by the national organization and the local branches from contributions and membership dues. NAACP policy, binding upon local branches and conferences, is set by the annual national convention.

The basic aims and purposes of NAACP are to secure the elimination of all racial barriers which deprive Negro citizens of the privileges and burdens of equal citizenship rights in the United States. To this end the Association engages in extensive educational and lobbying activities. It also devotes much of its funds and energies to an extensive [371 U.S. 415, 420] program of assisting certain kinds of litigation on behalf of its declared purposes. For more than 10 years, the Virginia Conference has concentrated upon financing litigation aimed at ending racial segregation in the public schools of the Commonwealth.

The Conference ordinarily will finance only cases in which the assisted litigant retains an NAACP staff lawyer to represent him. The Conference maintains a legal staff of 15 attorneys, all of whom are Negroes and members of the NAACP. The staff is elected at the Conference's annual convention. Each legal staff member must agree to abide by the policies of the NAACP, which, insofar as they pertain to professional services, limit the kinds of litigation which the NAACP will assist. Thus the NAACP will not underwrite ordinary damages actions, criminal actions in which the defendant raises no question of possible racial discrimination, or suits in which the plaintiff seeks separate but equal rather than fully desegregated public school facilities. The staff decides whether a litigant, who may or may not be an NAACP member, is entitled to NAACP assistance. The Conference defrays all expenses of litigation in an assisted case, and usually, although not always, pays each lawyer on the case a per diem fee not to exceed $60, plus out-of-pocket expenses. The assisted litigant receives no money from the Conference or the staff lawyers. The staff member may not accept, from the litigant or any other source, any other compensation for his services in an NAACP-assisted case. None of the staff receives a salary or retainer from the NAACP; the per diem fee is paid only for professional services in a particular case. This per diem payment is [371 U.S. 415, 421] smaller than the compensation ordinarily received for equivalent private professional work. The actual conduct of assisted litigation is under the control of the attorney, although the NAACP continues to be concerned that the outcome of the lawsuit should be consistent with NAACP's policies already described. A client is free at any time to withdraw from an action.

The members of the legal staff of the Virginia Conference and other NAACP or Defense Fund lawyers called in by the staff to assist are drawn into litigation in various ways. One is for an aggrieved Negro to apply directly to the Conference or the legal staff for assistance. His application is referred to the Chairman of the legal staff. The Chairman, with the concurrence of the President of the Conference, is authorized to agree to give legal assistance in an appropriate case. In litigation involving public school segregation, the procedure tends to be different. Typically, a local NAACP branch will invite a member of the legal staff to explain to a meeting of parents and children the legal steps necessary to achieve desegregation. The staff member will bring printed forms to the meeting authorizing him, and other NAACP or Defense Fund attorneys of his designation, to represent the signers in legal proceedings to achieve desegregation. On occasion, blank forms have been signed by litigants, upon the understanding that a member or members of the legal staff, with or without assistance from other NAACP lawyers, or from the Defense Fund, would handle the case. It is usual, after obtaining authorizations, for the staff lawyer to bring into the case the other staff members in the area where suit is to be brought, and sometimes to bring in lawyers from the national organization or the Defense Fund. In effect, then, the prospective [371 U.S. 415, 422] litigant retains not so much a particular attorney as the "firm" of NAACP and Defense Fund lawyers, which has a corporate reputation for expertness in presenting and arguing the difficult questions of law that frequently arise in civil rights litigation.

These meetings are sometimes prompted by letters and bulletins from the Conference urging active steps to fight segregation. The Conference has on occasion distributed to the local branches petitions for desegregation to be signed by parents and filed with local school boards, and advised branch officials to obtain, as petitioners, persons willing to "go all the way" in any possible litigation that may ensue. While the Conference in these ways encourages the bringing of lawsuits, the plaintiffs in particular actions, so far as appears, make their own decisions to become such.[371 U.S. 415, 423]

Statutory regulation of unethical and nonprofessional conduct by attorneys has been in force in Virginia since 1849. These provisions outlaw, inter alia, solicitation of legal business in the form of "running" or "capping." Prior to 1956, however, no attempt was made to proscribe under such regulations the activities of the NAACP, which had been carried on openly for many years in substantially the manner described. In 1956, however, the legislature amended, by the addition of Chapter 33, the provisions of the Virginia Code forbidding solicitation of legal business by a "runner" or "capper" to include, in the definition of "runner" or "capper," an agent for an individual or organization which retains a lawyer in connection with an action to which it is not a party and in which it has no pecuniary right or liability. [371 U.S. 415, 424] The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals held that the chapter's purpose "was to strengthen the existing statutes to further control the evils of solicitation of legal business . . . ." 202 Va., at 154, 116 S. E. 2d, at 65. The [371 U.S. 415, 425] court held that the activities of NAACP, the Virginia Conference, the Defense Fund, and the lawyers furnished by them, fell within, and could constitutionally be proscribed by, the chapter's expanded definition of improper solicitation of legal business, and also violated Canons 35 and 47 of the American Bar Association's Canons of Professional Ethics, which the court had [371 U.S. 415, 426] adopted in 1938. Specifically the court held that, under the expanded definition, such activities on the part of NAACP, the Virginia Conference, and the Defense Fund constituted "fomenting and soliciting legal business in which they are not parties and have no pecuniary right or liability, and which they channel to the enrichment of certain lawyers employed by them, at no cost to the litigants and over which the litigants have no control." 202 Va., at 155; 116 S. E. 2d, at 66. Finally, the court restated the decree of the Richmond Circuit Court. We have excerpted the pertinent portion of the court's holding in the margin. [371 U.S. 415, 427]


A jurisdictional question must first be resolved: whether the judgment below was "final" within the meaning of 28 U.S.C. 1257. The three-judge Federal District Court retained jurisdiction of this case while an authoritative construction of Chapters 33 and 36 was being sought in the Virginia courts Cf. Chicago v. Fieldcrest Dairies, Inc., 316 U.S. 168, 173. The question of our jurisdiction arises because, when the case was last here, we observed that such abstention to secure state court interpretation "does not, of course, involve the abdication [by the District Court] of federal jurisdiction, but only the postponement of its exercise . . . ." Harrison v. NAACP, 360 U.S. 167, 177. We meant simply that the District Court had properly retained jurisdiction, since a party has the right to return to the District Court, after obtaining the authoritative state court construction for which the court abstained, for a final determination of his claim. Where, however, the party remitted to the state courts elects to seek a complete and final adjudication of his rights in the state courts, the District Court's reservation of jurisdiction is purely formal, and does not impair our jurisdiction to review directly an otherwise final state court judgment. Lassiter v. Northampton County Bd. of Elections, 360 U.S. 45. We think it clear that petitioner made such an [371 U.S. 415, 428] election in the instant case, by seeking from the Richmond Circuit Court "a binding adjudication" of all its claims and a permanent injunction as well as declaratory relief, by making no reservation to the disposition of the entire case by the state courts, and by coming here directly on certiorari. Therefore, the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals was final, and the case is properly before us.


Petitioner challenges the decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals on many grounds. But we reach only one: that Chapter 33 as construed and applied abridges the freedoms of the First Amendment, protected against state action by the Fourteenth. More specifically, petitioner claims that the chapter infringes the right of the NAACP and its members and lawyers to associate for the purpose of assisting persons who seek legal redress for infringements of their constitutionally guaranteed and other rights. We think petitioner may assert this right on its own behalf, because, though a corporation, it is directly engaged in those activities, claimed to be constitutionally protected, which the statute would curtail. Cf. Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233. We also think petitioner has standing to assert the corresponding rights of its members. See NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 458-460; Bates v. City of Little Rock, 361 U.S. 516, 523, n. 9; Louisiana ex rel. Gremillion v. NAACP, 366 U.S. 293, 296.

We reverse the judgment of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. We hold that the activities of the NAACP, its affiliates and legal staff shown on this record are modes of expression and association protected by the First and [371 U.S. 415, 429] 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.


We meet at the outset the contention that "solicitation" is wholly outside the area of freedoms protected by the First Amendment. To this contention there are two answers. The first is that a State cannot foreclose the exercise of constitutional rights by mere labels. The second is that 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. Thomas v. Collins, 323 U.S. 516, 537; Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242, 259-264. Cf. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359, 369; Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4. In the context of NAACP objectives, litigation is not a technique of resolving private differences; it is a means for achieving the lawful objectives of equality of treatment by all government, federal, state and local, for the members of the Negro community in this country. It is thus a form of political expression. Groups which find themselves unable to achieve their objectives through the ballot frequently turn to the courts. Just as it was true of the [371 U.S. 415, 430] opponents of New Deal legislation during the 1930's, for example, no less is it true of the Negro minority today. And under the conditions of modern government, litigation may well be the sole practicable avenue open to a minority to petition for redress of grievances.

We need not, in order to find constitutional protection for the kind of cooperative, organizational activity disclosed by this record, whereby Negroes seek through lawful means to achieve legitimate political ends, 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. Thus we have affirmed the right "to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas." NAACP v. Alabama, supra, at 460. We have deemed privileged, under certain circumstances, the efforts of a union official to organize workers. Thomas v. Collins, supra. We have said that the Sherman Act does not apply to certain concerted activities of railroads "at least insofar as those activities comprised mere solicitation of governmental action with respect to the passage and enforcement of laws" because "such a construction of the Sherman Act would raise important constitutional questions," specifically, First Amendment questions. Eastern R. Presidents Conference v. Noerr Motor Freight, Inc., 65 U.S. 127, [371 U.S. 415, 431]138. And we have refused to countenance compelled disclosure of a person's political associations in language closely applicable to the instant case:

The NAACP is not a conventional political party; but the litigation it assists, while serving to vindicate the legal rights of members of the American Negro community, at the same time and perhaps more importantly, makes possible the distinctive contribution of a minority group to the ideas and beliefs of our society. For such a group, association for litigation may be the most effective form of political association.


Our concern is with the impact of enforcement of Chapter 33 upon First Amendment freedoms. We start, of course, from the decree of the Supreme Court of Appeals. Although the action before it was one basically for declaratory relief, that court not only expounded the purpose and reach of the chapter but held concretely that certain of petitioner's activities had, and certain others had not, [371 U.S. 415, 432] violated the chapter. These activities had been explored in detail at the trial and were spread out plainly on the record. We have no doubt that the opinion of the Supreme Court of Appeals in the instant case was intended as a full and authoritative construction of Chapter 33 as applied in a detailed factual context. That construction binds us. For us, the words of Virginia's highest court are the words of the statute. Hebert v. Louisiana, 272 U.S. 312, 317. We are not left to speculate at large upon the possible implications of bare statutory language.

But it does not follow that this Court now has only a clear-cut task to decide whether the activities of the petitioner deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court of Appeals are constitutionally privileged. If the line drawn by the decree between the permitted and prohibited activities of the NAACP, its members and lawyers is an ambiguous one, we will not presume that the statute curtails constitutionally protected activity as little as possible. For standards of permissible statutory vagueness are strict in the area of free expression. See Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147, 151; Winters v. New York, 333 U.S. 507, 509-510, 517-518; Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242; Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359; United States v. C. I. O.,335 U.S. 106, 142 (Rutledge, J., concurring). Furthermore, the instant decree may be invalid if it prohibits privileged exercises of First Amendment rights whether or not the record discloses that the petitioner has engaged in privileged conduct. For in appraising a statute's inhibitory effect upon such rights, this Court has not hesitated to take into account possible applications of the statute in other factual contexts besides that at bar. Thornhill v. Alabama,310 U.S. 88, 97-98; Winters v. New York, supra, at 518-520. Cf. Staub v. City of Baxley,355 U.S. 313. It makes no difference that the instant case was not a criminal prosecution and not based on a refusal to comply with a licensing requirement. The [371 U.S. 415, 433] objectionable quality of vagueness and overbreadth does not depend upon absence of fair notice to a criminally accused or upon unchanneled delegation of legislative powers, but upon the danger of tolerating, in the area of First Amendment freedoms, the existence of a penal statute susceptible of sweeping and improper application. Cf. Marcus v. Search Warrant, 367 U.S. 717, 733. These freedoms are delicate and vulnerable, as well as supremely precious in our society. The threat of sanctions may deter their exercise almost as potently as the actual application of sanctions. Cf. Smith v. California, supra, at 151-154; Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513, 526. Because First Amendment freedoms need breathing space to survive, government may regulate in the area only with narrow specificity. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 311.

[371 U.S. 415, 434]