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decided: November 12, 1923.



Author: Butler

[ 263 U.S. Page 211]

 MR. JUSTICE BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellants brought this suit to enjoin the Attorney General of Washington from enforcing the Anti-Alien Land Law of that State, c. 50, Laws, 1921, on the grounds that it is in conflict with the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment; with the treaty between the United States and Japan, and with certain provisions of the constitution of the State.

The appellants are residents of Washington. The Terraces are citizens of the United States and of Washington. Nakatsuka was born in Japan of Japanese parents and is a subject of the Emperor of Japan. The Terraces are the owners of a tract of land in King County which is particularly adapted to raising vegetables, and which for a number of years had been devoted to that and other agricultural purposes. The complaint alleges that Nakatsuka is a capable farmer and will be a desirable tenant of the land; that the Terraces desire to lease their land to him for the period of five years; that he desires to accept such lease, and that the lease would be made but

[ 263 U.S. Page 212]

     for the act complained of. And it is alleged that the defendant, as Attorney General, has thereatened to and will take steps to enforce the act against the appellants if they enter into such lease, and will treat the leasehold interest as forfeited to the State, and will prosecute the appellants criminally for violation of the act; that the act is so drastic and the penalties attached to its violation are so great that neither of the appellants may make the lease even to test the constitutionality of the act, and that, unless the court shall determine its validity in this suit, the appellants will be compelled to submit to it, whether valid or invalid, and thereby will be deprived of their property without due process of law and denied the equal protection of the laws.

The Attorney General made a motion to dismiss the amended complaint upon the ground that it did not state any matters of equity or facts sufficient to entitle the appellants to relief.The District Court granted the motion and entered a decree of dismissal on the merits. The case is here on appeal from that decree.

Section 33*fn1 of Article II of the Constitution of Washington prohibits the ownership of land by aliens other than those who in good faith have declared intention to become citizens of the United States, except in certain

[ 263 U.S. Page 213]

     instances not here involved. The act*fn2 provides in substance that any such alien shall not own, take, have or hold the legal or equitable title, or right to any benefit of any land as defined in the act, and that land conveyed to or for the use of aliens in violation of the state constitution or of the act shall thereby be forfeited to the state. And it is made a gross misdemeanor, punishable by fine or imprisonment or both, knowingly to transfer land or the right to the control, possession or use of land to such an alien.It is also made a gross misdemeanor for any such alien having title to such land or the control, possession or use thereof, to refuse to disclose to the Attorney General or the prosecuting attorney the nature and extent of his interest in the land. The Attorney General and the prosecuting attorneys of the several counties are charged with the enforcement of the act.

[ 263 U.S. Page 2141]

     . The Attorney General questions the jurisdiction of the court to grant equitable relief even if the statute be unconstitutional. He contends that the appellants have a plain, adequate and speedy remedy at law; that the case involves but a single transaction, and that, if the proposed lease is made, the only remedy which the State has, so far as civil proceedings are concerned, is an escheat proceeding in which the validity of the law complained of may be finally determined; that an acquittal of the Terraces of the criminal offense created by the statute would protect them from further prosecution, and that Nakatsuka is liable criminally only upon his failure to disclose the fact that he holds an interest in the land.

The unconstitutionality of a state law is not of itself ground for equitable relief in the courts of the United States. That a suit in equity does not lie where there is a plain, adequate and complete remedy at law is so well understood as not to require the citation of authorities. But the legal remedy must be as complete, practical and efficient as that which equity could afford. Boise Artesian Water Co. v. Boise City, 213 U.S. 276, 281; Walla Walla City v. Walla Walla Water Co., 172 U.S. 1, 11, 12. Equity jurisdiction will be exercised to enjoin the threatened enforcement of a state law which contravenes the Federal Constitution wherever it is essential in order effectually to protect property rights and the rights of persons against injuries otherwise irremediable; and in such a case a person, who as an officer of the State is clothed with the duty of enforcing its laws and who threatens and is about to commence proceedings, either civil or criminal, to enforce such a law against parties affected, may be enjoined from such action by a federal court of equity. Cavanaugh v. Looney, 248 U.S. 453, 456; Truax v. Raich, 239 U.S. 33, 37, 38. See also Exparte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 155, 162; Adams v. Tanner, 244 U.S. 590, 592; Greene v. Louisville & Interurban R.R. Co., id. 499, 506;

[ 263 U.S. Page 215]

     Home Telephone & Telegraph Co. v. Los Angeles, 227 U.S. 278, 293; Philadelphia Co. v. Stimson, 223 U.S. 605, 621; Western Union Telegraph Co. v. Andrews, 216 U.S. 165; Dobbins v. Los Angeles, 195 U.S. 223, 241; Davis & Farnum Manufacturing Co. v. Los Angeles, 189 U.S. 207, 217.

The Terraces' property rights in the land include the right to use, lease and dispose of it for lawful purposes (Buchanan v. Warley, 245 U.S. 60, 74), and the Constitution protects these essential attributes of property (Holden v. Hardy, 169 U.S. 366, 391), and also protects Nakatsuka in his right to earn a livelihood by following the ordinary occupations of life. Truax v. Raich, supra; Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390. If, as claimed, the state act is repugnant to the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, then its enforcement will deprive the owners of their right to lease their land to Nakatsuka, and deprive him of his right to pursue the occupation of farmer, and the threat to enforce it constitutes a continuing unlawful restriction upon and infringement of the rights of appellants, as to which they have no remedy at law which is as practical, efficient or adequate as the remedy in equity. And assuming, as suggested by the Attorney General, that after the making of the lease the validity of the law might be determined in proceedings to declare a forfeiture of the property to the State or in criminal proceedings to punish the owners, it does not follow that they may not appeal to equity for relief. No action at law can be initiated against them until after the consummation of ...

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