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decided*fn*: May 14, 1979.



Stevens, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Burger, C. J., and Blackmun, Powell, and Rehnquist, JJ., joined. Powell, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which Burger, C. J., and Rehnquist, J., joined, post, p. 623. White, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 646. Stewart, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in all but n. 2 of which Brennan and Marshall, JJ., joined, post, p. 672. Brennan and Marshall, JJ., filed a separate statement, post, p. 676.

Author: Stevens

[ 441 U.S. Page 602]

 MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States District Courts have jurisdiction over civil actions claiming a deprivation of rights secured by the Constitution of the United States or by Acts of Congress providing

[ 441 U.S. Page 603]

     for equal rights or for the protection of civil rights, including the right to vote.*fn1 The question presented by these cases is whether that jurisdiction encompasses a claim that a state welfare regulation is invalid because it conflicts with the Social Security Act. We conclude that it does not.

In the Social Security Amendments of 1967, Congress authorized partial federal funding of approved state programs providing emergency assistance for certain needy persons.*fn2 In February 1976, Julia Gonzalez, the petitioner in No. 77-5324, requested the Hudson County, N. J., Welfare Board to pay her $163 in emergency assistance funds to cover her rent and utility bills.*fn3 The Board denied her request because

[ 441 U.S. Page 604]

     petitioner and her children were not "in a state of homelessness" as required by the relevant New Jersey regulations.*fn4

Petitioner brought suit in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey alleging that the emergency payment was "necessary to avoid destitution" within the meaning of § 406 (e)(1) of the federal Social Security Act,*fn5 and she was therefore entitled to the payment notwithstanding the more stringent New Jersey regulation. In her federal complaint she sought damages of $163 and an injunction

[ 441 U.S. Page 605]

     commanding the New Jersey Welfare Director to conform his administration of the State's emergency assistance program to federal statutory standards. In essence, petitioner claimed that the New Jersey officials had deprived her of a right to emergency assistance protected by § 406 (e)(1) of the Social Security Act.

The District Court held that the complaint stated a claim under 42 U. S. C. § 1983.*fn6 Without deciding whether the "secured by the Constitution" language in § 1343 (3) should be construed to include Supremacy Clause claims,*fn7 the District Court concluded that it had jurisdiction under both subparagraphs (3) and (4) of § 1343. But in doing so, the court did not explain whether it was § 1983 or § 406 (e)(1) of the Social Security Act that it viewed as the Act of Congress securing "equal rights" or "civil rights." On the merits, the District Court found no conflict between the state regulation and the federal statute and entered summary judgment for respondents.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit did not address the merits because it concluded that the District Court should have dismissed the complaint for want of jurisdiction.*fn8 In

[ 441 U.S. Page 606]

     reaching this conclusion, the Court of Appeals first noted that § 1983 "is not a jurisdictional statute; it only fashions a remedy." 560 F.2d 160, 164 (1977). Nor could jurisdiction be founded on 28 U. S. C. § 1331,*fn9 the general federal-question jurisdictional statute, since the amount in controversy did not exceed $10,000. The court recognized that when a constitutional claim is of sufficient substance to support federal jurisdiction, a district court has power to consider other claims which might not provide an independent basis for federal jurisdiction.*fn10 But it concluded that the constitutional claim must involve more than a contention that the Supremacy Clause requires that a federal statute be given effect over conflicting state law. It then went on to hold that the Social Security Act is not an Act of Congress securing either "equal rights" or "civil rights" as those terms are used in § 1343. And those terms, the court concluded, limit the grant of federal jurisdiction conferred by § 1343 even if § 1983 creates a remedy for a broader category of statutory claims.

The petitioners in No. 77-719 are Commissioners of the Texas Department of Human Resources, which administers the State's program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). Respondents represent a class of AFDC recipients who share living quarters with a nondependent relative. Under the Texas regulations, the presence in the household of a nondependent person results in a reduction in the level of payments to the beneficiaries even if their level of actual need is unchanged. In a suit brought in the United

[ 441 U.S. Page 607]

     States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, respondents claimed that the Texas regulations violate § 402 (a)(7) of the Social Security Act, 42 U. S. C. § 602 (a)(7), and the federal regulations promulgated pursuant thereto.*fn11

The District Court upheld the Texas regulations.*fn12 While respondents' appeal was pending, this Court decided Van Lare v. Hurley, 421 U.S. 338. On the authority of that case, the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed.*fn13 Following earlier Fifth Circuit cases, the Court of Appeals concluded that federal jurisdiction was conferred by the language in 28 U. S. C. § 1343 (4) describing actions seeking relief "under any Act of Congress providing for the protection of civil rights . . . ." The court reasoned that statutory rights concerning food and shelter are "'rights of an essentially personal nature,'" Houston Welfare Rights Org. v. Vowell, 555 F.2d 1219, 1221 n. 1 (1977); that 42 U. S. C. § 1983 provides a remedy which may be invoked to protect such rights; and that § 1983 is an Act of Congress providing for the protection of civil rights within the meaning of that jurisdictional grant.*fn14

We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict between that conclusion and the holding of the Third Circuit in No. 77-5324. 434 U.S. 1061. We have previously reserved the jurisdictional question we decide today, see Hagans v. Lavine, 415 U.S. 528, 533-534, n. 5. We preface our decision with a review of the history of the governing statutes.


Our decision turns on the construction of the two jurisdictional provisions, 28 U. S. C. §§ 1343 (3) and (4), and their

[ 441 U.S. Page 608]

     interrelationship with 42 U. S. C. § 1983 and the Social Security Act. As in all cases of statutory construction, our task is to interpret the words of these statutes in light of the purposes Congress sought to serve.

Section 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 is the source of both the jurisdictional grant now codified in 28 U. S. C. § 1343 (3) and the remedy now authorized by 42 U. S. C. § 1983.*fn15 Section 1 authorized individual suits in federal court to vindicate the deprivation, under color of state law, "of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution of the United States." No authorization was given for suits based on any federal statute.

In 1874, Congress enacted the Revised Statutes of the United States. At that time, the remedial and jurisdictional provisions of § 1 were modified and placed in separate sections. The words "and laws," as now found in § 1983, were included in the remedial provision of Rev. Stat. § 1979,*fn16 and two quite

[ 441 U.S. Page 609]

     different formulations of the jurisdictional grant were included in Rev. Stat. §§ 563 and 629. The former granted the district courts jurisdiction of all actions to redress a deprivation under color of state law of any right secured by the Constitution or "by any law of the United States."*fn17 The latter defined the jurisdiction of the circuit courts and included the limiting phrase -- "by any law providing for equal rights" -- which is now found in § 1343 (3).*fn18

In the Judicial Code of 1911, Congress abolished circuit courts and transferred their authority to the district courts.*fn19 The Code's definition of the jurisdiction of the district courts to redress the deprivation of civil rights omitted the broad language referring to "any law of the United States" which had defined district court jurisdiction under § 563, and provided instead for jurisdiction over claims arising under federal laws "providing for equal rights" -- the language which had been used to describe circuit court jurisdiction under § 629,

[ 441 U.S. Page 610]

     and which is now a part of § 1343 (3).*fn20 No significant change in either the remedial or jurisdictional language has been made since 1911.*fn21

Subsection 4 of § 1343, providing jurisdiction for claims "under any Act of Congress providing for the protection of civil rights, including the right to vote," is of more recent origin. Part III of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, as proposed, authorized the Attorney General to institute suits for injunctive relief against conspiracies to deprive citizens of the civil rights specified in 42 U. S. C. § 1985, which includes voting rights.*fn22 Part III conferred jurisdiction on the United States district courts to entertain proceedings instituted pursuant to this section of the Act.*fn23 While the substantive authorization of suits by the Attorney General was defeated, the amendment of § 1343, which had been termed a technical amendment to comply with the authority conferred by Part III,*fn24 was enacted into law.

With the exception of this most recent enactment, the legislative history of the provisions at issue in these cases ultimately provides us with little guidance as to the proper resolution of the question presented here. Section 1 of the 1871 Act was the least controversial provision of that Act;*fn25

[ 441 U.S. Page 611]

     and what little debate did take place as to § 1 centered largely on the question of what protections the Constitution in fact afforded.*fn26 The relevant changes in the Revised Statutes were adopted virtually without comment, as was the definition of civil rights jurisdiction in the 1911 Code. The latter provision was described as simply merging the existing jurisdiction of the district and circuit courts,*fn27 a statement which may be read either as reflecting a view that the broader "and laws" language was intended to be preserved in the more limited "equal rights" language or as suggesting that "and laws" was itself originally enacted with reference to laws providing for equal rights, and was never thought to be any broader.

Similar ambiguity is found in discussions of the basic policy of the legislation. While there is weight to the claim that Congress, from 1874 onward, intended to create a broad right of action in federal court for deprivations by a State of any federally secured right, it is also clear that the prime focus of Congress in all of the relevant legislation was ensuring a right of action to enforce the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment and the federal laws enacted pursuant thereto.

We cannot say that any of these arguments is ultimately

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     right or wrong, or that one policy is more persuasive than others in reflecting the intent of Congress. It may well be that, at least as to § 1343 (3), the Congresses that enacted the 1871 Act and its subsequent amendments never considered the question of federal jurisdiction of claims arising under the broad scope of federal substantive authority that emerged many years later. This does not mean that jurisdiction cannot be found to encompass claims nonexistent in 1871 or 1874, but it cautions us to be hesitant in finding jurisdiction for new claims which do not clearly fit within the terms of the statute.*fn28


The statutory language suggests three different approaches to the jurisdictional issue. The first involves a consideration of the words "secured by the Constitution of the United States" as used in § 1343. The second focuses on the remedy authorized by § 1983 and raises the question whether that section is a statute that secures "equal rights" or "civil rights" within the meaning of § 1343. The third approach makes the jurisdictional issue turn on whether the Social Security Act is a statute that secures "equal rights" or "civil rights." We consider these approaches in turn.

1. The Supremacy Clause

Under § 1343 (3), Congress has created federal jurisdiction of any civil action authorized by law to redress the deprivation under color of state law "of any right, privilege or immunity secured [1] by the Constitution of the United States or [2] by any Act of Congress providing for equal rights of citizens or of all persons within the jurisdiction of the United

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     States." Claimants correctly point out that the first prepositional phrase can be fairly read to describe rights secured by the Supremacy Clause. For even though that Clause is not a source of any federal rights, it does "secure" federal rights by according them priority whenever they come in conflict with state law.*fn29 In that sense all federal rights, whether created by treaty, by statute, or by regulation, are "secured" by the Supremacy Clause.

In Swift & Co. v. Wickham, 382 U.S. 111, the Court was confronted with an analogous choice between two interpretations of the statute defining the jurisdiction of three-judge district courts.*fn30 The comprehensive language of that statute, 28 U. S. C. § 2281 (1970 ed.),*fn31 could have been broadly read to

[ 441 U.S. Page 614]

     encompass statutory claims secured by the Supremacy Clause or narrowly read to exclude claims that involve no federal constitutional provision except that Clause. After acknowledging that the broader reading was consistent not only with the statutory language but also with the policy of the statute, the Court accepted the more restrictive reading. Its reasoning is persuasive and applicable to the problems confronting us in this case.

"This restrictive view of the application of § 2281 is more consistent with a discriminating reading of the statute itself than is the first and more embracing interpretation. The statute requires a three-judge court in order to restrain the enforcement of a state statute 'upon the ground of the unconstitutionality of such statute.' Since all federal actions to enjoin a state enactment rest ultimately on the Supremacy Clause, the words 'upon the ground of the unconstitutionality of such statute' would appear to be superfluous unless they are read to exclude some types of such injunctive suits. For a simple provision prohibiting the restraint of the enforcement of any state statute except by a three-judge court would manifestly have sufficed to embrace every such suit whatever its particular constitutional ground. It is thus quite permissible to read the phrase in question as one of limitation, signifying a congressional purpose to confine the three-judge court requirement to injunction suits depending directly upon a substantive provision of the Constitution, leaving cases of conflict with a federal statute (or treaty) to follow their normal course in a single-judge court." Swift & Co. v. Wickham, supra, at 126-127 (footnotes omitted).

Just as the phrase in § 2281 -- "upon the ground of the

[ 441 U.S. Page 615]

     unconstitutionality of such statute" -- would have been superfluous unless read as a limitation on three-judge-court jurisdiction, so is it equally clear that the entire reference in § 1343 (3) to rights secured by an Act of Congress would be unnecessary if the earlier reference to constitutional claims embraced those resting solely on the Supremacy Clause. More importantly, the additional language which describes a limited category of Acts of Congress -- those "providing for equal rights of citizens" -- plainly negates the notion that jurisdiction over all statutory claims had already been conferred by the preceding reference to constitutional claims.

Thus, while we recognize that there is force to claimants' argument that the remedial purpose of the civil rights legislation supports an expansive interpretation of the phrase "secured by the Constitution," it would make little sense for Congress to have drafted the statute as it did if it had intended to confer jurisdiction over every conceivable federal claim against a state agent. In order to give meaning to the entire statute as written by Congress, we must conclude that an allegation of incompatibility between federal and state statutes and regulations does not, in itself, give rise to a claim "secured by the Constitution" within the meaning of § 1343 (3).

2. Section 1983

Claimants next argue that the "equal rights" language of § 1343 (3) should not be read literally or, if it is, that § 1983, the source of their asserted cause of action, should be considered an Act of Congress "providing for equal rights" within the meaning of § 1343 (3) or "providing for the protection of civil rights" within § 1343 (4). In support of this position, they point to the common origin of §§ 1983 and 1343 (3) in the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and this Court's recognition that the latter is the jurisdictional counterpart of the former.*fn32

[ 441 U.S. Page 616]

     Since broad language describing statutory claims was used in both provisions during the period between 1874 and 1911 and has been retained in § 1983, and since Congress in the Judicial Code of 1911 purported to be making no changes in the existing law as to jurisdiction in this area, the "equal rights" language of § 1343 (3) must be construed to encompass all statutory claims arising under the broader language of § 1983. Moreover, in view of its origin in the Civil Rights Act of 1871 and its function in modern litigation, § 1983 does "[provide] for the protection of civil rights" within the meaning of § 1343 (4).

In practical effect, this argument leads to the same result as claimants' Supremacy Clause argument: jurisdiction over all challenges to state action based on any federal ground. Although the legislative history does not forbid this result, the words and structure of the statute, as well as portions of the legislative history, support a more limited construction.

The common origin of §§ 1983 and 1343 (3) unquestionably implies that their coverage is, or at least originally was, coextensive. It is not, however, necessary in this case to decide whether the two provisions have the same scope. For even if they do, there would still be the question whether the "and laws" language in § 1983 should be narrowly read to conform with the "equal rights" language in § 1343 (3), or, conversely, the latter phrase should be broadly read to parallel the former. And, in all events, whether or not we assume that there is a difference between "any law of the United States" on the one hand and "any Act of Congress providing for equal rights" on the other, the fact is that the more limited language was used when Congress last amended the jurisdictional provision. In order to construe the broad language of § 1983 to cover any statutory claim, and at the same time to construe the language of § 1343 (3) as coextensive with such a cause of action, it would be necessary to ignore entirely Congress' most recent limiting amendment and the words of the provision as currently in force.

[ 441 U.S. Page 617]

     We cannot accept claimants' argument that we should reach this result by holding that § 1983 is an Act of Congress "providing for equal rights" within the meaning of § 1343 (3). Unlike the 1866 and 1870 Acts,*fn33 § 1 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871 did not provide for any substantive rights -- equal or otherwise. As introduced and enacted, it served only to ensure that an individual had a cause of action for violations of the Constitution, which in the Fourteenth Amendment embodied and extended to all individuals as against state action the substantive protections afforded by § 1 of the 1866 Act.*fn34 No matter how broad the § 1 cause of action may be, the breadth of its coverage does not alter its procedural character. Even if claimants are correct in asserting that § 1983 provides a cause of action for all federal statutory claims, it remains true that one cannot go into court and claim a "violation of § 1983" -- for § 1983 by itself does not protect anyone against anything. As Senator Edmunds recognized in the 1871 debate: "All civil suits, as every lawyer understands, which this act authorizes, are not based upon it;

[ 441 U.S. Page 618]

     they are based upon the right of the citizen. The act only gives a remedy."*fn35

Under § 1343 (3), a civil action must be both "authorized by law" and brought to redress the deprivation of rights "secured by the Constitution of the United States or by any Act of Congress providing for equal rights." Section 1983, when properly invoked, satisfies the first requirement: It ensures that the suit will not be dismissed because not "authorized by law." But it cannot satisfy the second, since by its terms, as well as its history, it does not provide any rights at all.

We reach a similar conclusion with respect to the argument that § 1983 is a statute "providing for the protection of civil rights, including the right to vote." Standing alone, § 1983 clearly provides no protection for civil rights since, as we have just concluded, § 1983 does not provide any substantive rights at all. To be sure, it may be argued that § 1983 does in some sense "[provide] for the protection of civil rights" when it authorizes a cause of action based on the deprivation of civil rights guaranteed by other Acts of Congress. But in such cases, there is no question as to jurisdiction, and no need to invoke § 1983 to meet the "civil rights" requirement of § 1343 (4); the Act of Congress which is the actual substantive basis of the suit clearly suffices to meet the requisite test.*fn36 It is only when the underlying statute is not a civil rights Act that § 1983 need be invoked by those in claimants' position to support jurisdiction. And in such cases, by hypothesis, § 1983 does not "[provide] for the protection of civil rights."

To construe § 1343 (4), moreover, as encompassing all federal statutory suits, as claimants here propose, would seem plainly inconsistent with the congressional intent in passing that statute. As noted earlier, the provision's primary purpose

[ 441 U.S. Page 619]

     was to ensure federal-court jurisdiction over suits which the bill authorized the Attorney General to bring against conspiracies to deprive individuals of the civil rights enumerated in 42 U. S. C. § 1985.*fn37 The statute, of course, is broader than that: It encompasses suits brought by private individuals as well, and thus retained some significance even after the provisions authorizing suit by the Attorney General were defeated. But to the extent that § 1343 (4) was thought to expand existing federal jurisdiction, it was only because it does not require that the claimed deprivation be "under color of any State law."*fn38 One would expect that if Congress sought

[ 441 U.S. Page 620]

     not only to eliminate any state-action requirement but also to allow jurisdiction without respect to the amount in controversy for claims which in fact have nothing to do with "civil rights," there would be some indication of such an intent. But there is none, either in the legislative history or in the words of the statute itself.

3. The Social Security Act

It follows from what we have said thus far that § 1343 does not confer federal jurisdiction over the claims based on the Social Security Act unless that Act may fairly be characterized as a statute securing "equal rights" within § 1343 (3) or "civil rights" within § 1343 (4). The Social Security Act provisions at issue here authorize federal assistance to participating States in the provision of a wide range of monetary benefits to needy individuals, including emergency assistance and payments necessary to provide food and shelter. Arguably, a statute that is intended to provide at least a minimum level of subsistence for all individuals could be regarded as securing either "equal rights" or "civil rights."*fn39 We are persuaded,

[ 441 U.S. Page 621]

     however, that both of these terms have a more restrictive meaning as used in the jurisdictional statute.

The Social Security Act does not deal with the concept of "equality" or with the guarantee of "civil rights," as those terms are commonly understood. The Congress that enacted § 1343 (3) was primarily concerned with providing jurisdiction for cases dealing with racial equality; the Congress that enacted § 1343 (4) was primarily concerned with providing jurisdiction for actions dealing with the civil rights enumerated in 42 U. S. C. § 1985, and most notably the right to vote. While the words of these statutes are not limited to the precise claims which motivated their passage,*fn40 it is inappropriate to read the jurisdictional provisions to encompass new claims which fall well outside the common understanding of their terms.

Our conclusion that the Social Security Act does not fall within the terms of either § 1343 (3) or (4) is supported by this Court's construction of similar phrases in the removal statute, 28 U. S. C. § 1443. The removal statute makes reference to "any law providing for the equal civil rights of citizens" and "any law providing for equal rights." In construing these phrases in Georgia v. Rachel, 384 U.S. 780, this Court concluded:

"The present language 'any law providing for . . . equal civil rights' first appeared in § 641 of the Revised Statutes of 1874. When the Revised Statutes were compiled, the substantive and removal provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 were carried forward in separate sections. Hence, Congress could no longer identify the rights for which removal was available by using the language of the original Civil Rights Act -- 'rights secured to them by the first section of this act.' The new

[ 441 U.S. Page 622]

     language it chose, however, does not suggest that it intended to limit the scope of removal to rights recognized in statutes existing in 1874. On the contrary, Congress' choice of the open-ended phrase 'any law providing for . . . equal civil rights' was clearly appropriate to permit removal in cases involving 'a right under' both existing and future statutes that provided for equal civil rights.

"There is no substantial indication, however, that the general language of § 641 of the Revised Statutes was intended to expand the kinds of 'law' to which the removal section referred. In spite of the potential breadth of the phrase 'any law providing for . . . equal civil rights,' it seems clear that in enacting § 641, Congress intended in ...

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