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HARRELL v. TOBRINER

November 8, 1967

Minnie HARRELL et al., Plaintiffs, Clay Mae LeGrant, Plaintiff-Intervenor,
v.
Walter N. TOBRINER et al., Defendants. Vera M. BARLEY et al., Plaintiffs, v. Walter N. TOBRINER et al., Defendants. Gloria Jean BROWN et al., Plaintiffs, Clay Mae LeGrant, Plaintiff-Intervenor, v. Walter N. TOBRINER et al., Defendants



The opinion of the court was delivered by: FAHY

 Plaintiffs and intervenor, *fn1" all now to be referred to as plaintiffs, in slightly differing factual situations applied for public assistance under the District of Columbia Public Assistance Act of 1962, Title 3, Chapter 2, D.C.Code (1967). Defendants, who have official responsibility in the matter, denied the applications. The sole ground of denial was that plaintiffs and the minor children on whose behalf they sought aid had not complied with the residence requirements of D.C.Code § 3-203(a)(b) (1967), set forth in the margin insofar as pertinent to this case, *fn2" and with the regulations promulgated pursuant to the statute. Plaintiffs seek relief by declaratory judgments and injunctions against enforcement by defendants of such residence requirements. *fn3" The complaints proceed on two theories, first, that Section 3-203 vests a discretion in the defendants to disregard the one-year residence requirements and they have not exercised such discretion, and, second, that if there is no such discretion the one-year residence requirements of Section 3-203 are constitutionally invalid.

 This three-judge District Court was convened pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2282 *fn4" and was composed under the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 2284.

 On September 11, 1967, after argument, we granted the motion of plaintiffs for a preliminary injunction pendente lite or until the further order of the court. *fn5" We accompanied our order with Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, the findings setting forth in detail the factual situation of each plaintiff, which still prevails in essential respects. The matter is decided now on motions for summary judgment submitted by both plaintiffs and defendants, enabling us to decide the merits, there being no genuine issues of material fact requiring an evidentiary hearing.

 I

 We agree with defendants that Section 3-203 does not grant defendants a discretion to disregard the one-year residence requirements applicable to plaintiffs. This construction is supported not only by the language of the statute but also by its legislative history. The Senate District of Columbia Committee in its Report on the Act stated that one of the congressional purposes was to

 
(c) Make uniform in all categories a 1-year residence requirement for public assistance eligibility. (S.Rep. No. 844, 87th Cong., 1st Sess. (1961).)

 The administrators of the program have consistently interpreted the statute as the legislative history thus indicates Congress intended, that is, that the language "public assistance shall be awarded" to those who meet the one-year conditions means that the assistance is not to be granted unless those conditions are met. This consistent and reasonable interpretation by those charged with the duty of administering the statute is entitled to great weight. Zemel v. Rusk, 381 U.S. 1, 11, 85 S. Ct. 1271, 14 L. Ed. 2d 179; Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1, 16, 85 S. Ct. 792, 13 L. Ed. 2d 616; United States v. American Trucking Associations, 310 U.S. 534, 549, 60 S. Ct. 1059, 84 L. Ed. 1345. Moreover, we independently interpret the language used by Congress in like manner. It becomes our duty therefore to decide the validity of the challenged parts of the statute as so construed. *fn6"

 
Since the validity of an Act of Congress is involved, we begin our analysis mindful that the function we are now discharging is "the gravest and most delicate duty that this Court is called upon to perform." Blodgett v. Holden, 275 U.S. 142, 148, 48 S. Ct. 105, 107, 72 L. Ed. 206, 276 U.S. 594 (separate opinion of Holmes, J.). This responsibility we here fulfill with all respect for the powers of Congress, but with recognition of the transcendent status of our Constitution.

 In Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 103-104, 78 S. Ct. 590, 599-600, 2 L. Ed. 2d 630, Mr. Chief Justice Warren has stated the matter as it must be considered:

 
The provisions of the Constitution are not time-worn adages or hollow shibboleths. They are vital, living principles that authorize and limit governmental powers in our Nation. They are the rules of government. When the constitutionality of an Act of Congress is challenged in this Court, we must apply those rules. If we do not, the words of the Constitution become little more than good advice.
 
When it appears that an Act of Congress conflicts with one of these provisions, we have no choice but to enforce the paramount command of the Constitution. We are sworn to do no less. * * * We do well to approach this task cautiously, as all our predecessors have counseled. But the ordeal of judgment cannot be shirked.

 In line with the caution thus admonished, applicable to us certainly no less than to the Supreme Court, we should construe the challenged portions of Section 3-203 so as to avoid a serious constitutional question if reasonably able to do so. United States v. Rumely, 345 U.S. 41, 45, 73 S. Ct. 543, 97 L. Ed. 770. But it seems clear to us that Congress intended to impose one-year residence requirements as conditions, similar to conditions prevailing in numerous other jurisdictions. There is no evidence of a congressional intent to depart from a rather widespread legislative pattern in this area. This pattern lends support to defendants' interpretation of Section 3-203 as precluding a discretion on their part to disregard the requirements. Our agreement with defendants' interpretation requires us to reach the constitutional question.

 Any weight the legislative pattern gives to defendants' constitutional position, however, as distinguished from their statutory interpretation, we think is overcome by considerations which stem primarily from the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment and applicable to this jurisdiction by reason of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. *fn7"

 In Thompson the court first concluded the provision constituted an arbitrary classification in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's prohibition against state abridgment of the privilege and immunity of a citizen of the United States to enjoy the liberty to travel interstate. The court relied heavily upon Edwards v. People of State of California, 314 U.S. 160, 62 S. Ct. 164, 86 L. Ed. 119. The court also relied upon a more general liberty of the citizen to travel, upheld by the Supreme Court in the passport cases, including Kent v. Dulles, 357 U.S. 116, ...


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