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decided: January 3, 1927.



Taft, Holmes, Van Devanter, McReynolds, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Sanford, Stone

Author: Sanford

[ 273 U.S. Page 71]

 MR. JUSTICE SANFORD delivered the opinion of the Court.

This proceeding was commenced by a petition filed by the plaintiffs in error on the law side of the Federal District Court for Eastern Kentucky, seeking to obtain a judgment declaring their rights under an Act of the Kentucky Legislature.

The Declaratory Judgment Law of Kentucky, Acts of 1922, ch. 83, provides that in any action in a court of record of that Commonwealth having general jurisdiction wherein it is made to appear that an actual controversy exists, the plaintiff may, by means of a petition on the law or equity side of the court, as the nature of the case may require, ask for and obtain "a declaration of rights, either alone or with other relief; and the court may make a binding declaration of rights, whether or not consequential relief is or could be asked;" and that further relief, based on such declaratory judgment, may be granted by the court whenever necessary or proper, either in the same proceeding or in an independent action, upon notice to any adverse party whose rights have been adjudicated by the declaratory judgment.

[ 273 U.S. Page 72]

     The petition alleged that the plaintiffs, a Kentucky corporation and a citizen of North Carolina, were engaged in operating a looseleaf tobacco warehouse in Kentucky, in which they sold leaf tobacco at public auction for their customers and patrons; that their rights were materially and seriously affected by chapter 10 of the Kentucky Acts of 1924, regulating the sales of leaf tobacco at public auction; that this Act was invalid and repugnant to the Bill of Rights and Constitution of Kentucky, the commerce clause of the Constitution of the United States, the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Sherman Anti-Trust Law; that an actual controversy existed with respect thereto, in that the plaintiffs had been threatened with various civil and criminal punishments and penalties for the violation of the Act, which were about to be enforced thereunder; that in conducting their business, it was necessary for them to know whether the Act was valid or invalid, and whether they were liable for the crimes therein denounced, and subject to the fines and penalties it prescribed, and they could not continue their business without a financial loss, amounting to confiscation of their rights, business and property, unless the court made a declaration of their rights and duties under the Act; that they made this application to the court in accordance with the Federal Conformity Statute and the Declaratory Judgment Law of Kentucky "for the purpose of securing a declaration of their rights and duties" under the Act of 1924, and having the "court determine whether in the conduct of their business it will be necessary for them to comply" with the provisions of the Act, or whether it is "invalid in whole or in part, and if so, in what part"; and that the Commonwealth Attorney was made a party defendant as the representative of the Commonwealth charged with the duty of enforcing the Act, and who, as such, "prepared the indictments referred to herein." No

[ 273 U.S. Page 73]

     other reference, however, was made to any such indictments in the petition.

The plaintiffs prayed the court "by its judgment to declare what their rights and duties under said Act of 1924 are, and that a judgment be rendered declaring said Act of 1924 invalid, and for all proper relief."

The defendant demurred to the petition, on the ground, among others, that the court had no jurisdiction of the cause of action set forth, having no power or authority as a Federal Court to entertain a proceeding for a declaration of the rights of parties or to act under the provisions of the Declaratory Judgment Law of Kentucky. This demurrer was sustained. Twelve days later a final judgment was entered, reciting that the plaintiffs having failed to amend their petition, and the court being of opinion that it had no jurisdiction of the action, the same was dismissed. This direct writ of error was allowed upon the question of jurisdiction, under ยง 238 of the Judicial Code, before the amendment made by the Jurisdictional Act of 1925 became effective.

The sole purpose of the petition, as shown by its express allegations, is to obtain a declaration from the District Court of the rights and duties of the plaintiffs under the Act of 1924, and a determination of the extent to which they must comply with its provisions in the conduct of their business. This is its entire scope. While the Commonwealth Attorney is made a defendant as a representative of the Commonwealth, there is no semblance of any adverse litigation with him individually; there being neither any allegation that the plaintiffs have done or contemplate doing any of the things forbidden by the Act before being advised by the court as to their rights, nor any allegation that the Commonwealth Attorney has threatened to take or ...

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