Summary of NAACP v. Button
Citation: 371 U.S. 415 (1963)
Relevant Facts: The State of Virginia sought to ban barratry (stirring up litigation through inducement to sue), champerty (third-party assumption of litigation costs in return for share of judgment), and maintenance (third-party support to prolong litigation), ostensibly in pursuit of their duty to regulate the practice of law within the State. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought suit, claiming the true aim of such legislation was to restrict their activities within the state, including their efforts to litigate on behalf of members and interests. The NAACP originally brought suit against Virginia Attorney General Albertis Harrison in federal district court, with that Court striking down three laws on constitutional grounds while remanding the case to state court for interpretation of two additional statutes. The State appealed and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the district court should not have ruled on the merits until the State had an opportunity to construe the laws. The NAACP next brought suit in state court against new Virginia Attorney General Robert Button, alleging that the laws in question violated their First and Fourteenth amendment guarantees of free speech and due process. At trial, the court upheld both laws, and the Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed in part, upholding one law but overturning the other. The Supreme Court again granted certiorari.
Issue: Does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction to review a final judgment by a State Court notwithstanding earlier retention of jurisdiction by a federal district court? Do the laws in question as construed by the State of Virginia violate Petitioners First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and due process?
Holding: Yes, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction to hear the case as the district court’s reservation of jurisdiction was purely technical to allow the state to construe the law, thus allowing the Supreme Court to review a final, State court determination. Yes, the laws as construed violate the Petitioners free speech and due process rights as litigation is one form of protected free expression, and cannot be unreasonably limited under the auspices of regulating the practice of law.
Reasoning: Justice Brennan wrote for the majority and announced the judgment of the Court. First, the majority determined that the district court’s reservation of jurisdiction was purely formal. Accordingly, the judgment of the state court judgment below was “final" within the meaning of the applicable statute and properly before the Supreme Court. Turning to the substantive question, the Court described the laws as the State of Virginia had: attempts to regulate attorneys and attorney conduct. However, the Court found that the NAACP had retained attorneys and staff to further its goal of fighting racial discrimination, with litigation as one means for doing so. Viewed in that light, the State was seeking to prohibit protected modes of expression, the NAACP having selected litigation as a viable means to further their particular viewpoint. The Court dismissed the argument that the NAACP, as a corporation, was not entitled to free speech protections, reasoning that the organization could assert- collectively- the rights of members and claim constitutional protections. Next, Justice Brennan pointed out that the First Amendment, made applicable to the States through the due process clause of the First Amendment, protects more than just discussion, going far enough to protect advocacy and the means to effectively advocate. In this case, litigation was more than a means for resolving an isolated dispute; rather, the Court explained that the Courts are available to further political expression so long as parties do so within the otherwise applicable rules. The statute, as written and construed, carried significant risk of silencing protected speech by preventing attorneys or potential clients from discussing a wide variety of matters under threat of criminal prosecution. The State may maintain the practice of law, but such regulations may not extend to prohibiting protected forms of expression. The Court concluded that the statutes were aimed at prohibiting otherwise lawful advocacy by restricting free expression, and the State failed to satisfy the high evidentiary burden or advance a compelling interest sufficient to justify restricting protected speech.
Concurrence/Dissent: Justice Douglas concurred, writing separately to highlight his belief that the legislative scheme at issue here was specifically directed at inhibiting the activities of the NAACP as they advocated for school desegregation and other goals of racial equality. Justice White concurred in part and dissented in part, agreeing with the majority that the statute in question violated the Constitution, but disagree with the breadth of their reasoning as he believed a more narrowly drawn regulation aimed specifically at regulating the legal profession could well pass constitutional muster. Justice Harlan, joined by Justices Clark and Stewart, dissented. While the dissenters insisted on strong protections for advocacy, whether or not aimed at racial issues, they believed that the issue here was one of regulating the legal profession, an area long recognized as the exclusive province of the States. Justice Harlan described the organization of the NAACP’s litigation apparatus in detail, pointing out that they sought out specific types of clients and directed a large number of non-lawyer staff, and should be subject to generally applicable regulations governing the practice of law.
Conclusion: States may not prohibit protected expression in the form of legal advocacy notwithstanding their traditional role in regulating the practice of law. Where, as here, a statute crosses the boundaries of professional regulation and extends to conduct the prohibition of which could chill protected speech, it violates the rights of individuals and groups to effectively speak and advocate on behalf of their protected beliefs.