Access to Justice

Attala County, Mississippi Branch of the NAACP v. Evans

In Atalla County, Mississippi Branch of the NAACP v. Evans, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering when federal courts may adjudicate suits that challenge systematic racial discrimination in the jury-selection process for state criminal trials.

Case Summary

According to the plaintiffs in this case, a Mississippi district attorney has for years carried out an unconstitutional policy of preventing Black residents from serving on juries in criminal trials through the use of peremptory challenges. To stop that policy from continuing, the plaintiffs filed suit under “Section 1983,” a landmark civil rights statute dating to the Reconstruction era, which is meant to deter constitutional violations by state and local officials by providing victims with a remedy in federal court. The plaintiffs seek an injunction prohibiting the district attorney from maintaining his discriminatory policy.

The district court, however, ruled that the plaintiffs’ suit could not proceed. It cited two Supreme Court decisions—Younger v. Harris (1971) and O’Shea v. Littleton (1974)—which instruct federal courts to “abstain” from hearing challenges to the conduct of state officials when doing so would disrupt state criminal proceedings and when other avenues for relief are available. The plaintiffs appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit, where CAC filed an amicus curiae brief urging reversal of the district court’s decision and allowing the case to proceed.

Our brief makes two points. First, we explain that the abstention doctrine of Younger and O’Shea is at odds with the text, history, and purpose of Section 1983. That law broadly provides a right to sue “every person” who, under color of state law or custom, deprives another person of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution.” And when Congress passed Section 1983 during the Reconstruction era, one of its main purposes was to empower the federal courts to correct unconstitutional discrimination taking place in state criminal justice systems. As our brief explains, Section 1983 was part of a sweeping array of civil rights legislation enacted by Congress to interject the federal courts between Southern states and the citizens they refused to treat equally after the Civil War. Congress heard extensive testimony regarding the failure of state judges and juries to protect the constitutional rights of Black citizens, and Section 1983’s advocates and opponents all understood that it would allow federal courts to adjudicate such allegations. Moreover, Congress specifically rejected proposals that would have required the federal courts to abstain from hearing constitutional challenges in deference to state courts. The Supreme Court ignored this history, along with the text and purpose of Section 1983, when it crafted the Younger and O’Shea abstention doctrine a century later.

Second, our brief argues that in light of the dubious legal foundation for Younger and O’Shea abstention, that doctrine should be confined to circumstances that clearly fall within existing precedent. But in dismissing the plaintiffs’ suit, the district court extended the doctrine far beyond what precedent requires, under a rationale that would prevent virtually any suit in federal court alleging unconstitutional discrimination in state criminal justice systems. As we explain, even under the erroneous standards of Younger and O’Shea, this case should be allowed to proceed because it will not cause interference with any state court proceedings and because the plaintiffs have no other means of enforcing their rights.

Case Timeline

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