NAACP v. Levi

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In NAACP v. Levi, 418 F. Supp. 1109 (D.D.C. 1976), the federal district court held that an association (the NAACP) had standing to assert a claim against the United States Attorney General and other government officials for their failure to investigate a killing of a black man by a white Arkansas officer in 1971.

The court held that:

the defense of sovereign immunity, as defendants urge, serve as an absolute jurisdictional bar to the maintenance of this action against the named defendants. See: Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 94 S. Ct. 1683, 40 L. Ed. 2d 90 (1974); Economou v. Department of Agriculture, 535 F.2d 688 (1976). If they have engaged in racially discriminatory practices proscribed by ยงยง 1981 or 1985, the plaintiffs should not be stopped at the threshold. Where the manner in which public officials exercise their authority is challenged as contrary to constitutional and statutory mandates, the doctrine of sovereign immunity may not prevail. Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corp., 337 U.S. 682, 702, 69 S. Ct. 1457, 93 L. Ed. 1628 (1949). While the plaintiffs may be limited as to the extent of the relief afforded by the Court, a consideration of that aspect at this time is speculative and premature. There is no sound basis for this Court to deny subject matter jurisdiction and sovereign immunity may not be asserted to avoid a hearing on the merits.

The court quoted the U.S. Supreme Court's statement in Scheuer v. Rhodes that:

When a federal court reviews the sufficiency of a complaint, before the reception of any evidence either by affidavit or admissions, its task is necessarily a limited one. The issue is not whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail but whether the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims. Indeed it may appear on the face of the pleadings that a recovery is very remote and unlikely but that is not the test. Moreover, it is well established that, in passing on a motion to dismiss, whether on the ground of lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter or for failure to state a cause of action, the allegations of the complaint should be construed favorably to the pleader. 416 U.S. 232 at 236, 94 S. Ct. at 1686 (1974).

Factual Background

The Court described the factual background:

On May 31, 1971, Carnell Russ, a 24 year old black, while operating his motor vehicle on an Arkansas highway, was arrested for an alleged speeding violation by Jerry Mac Green, a white state trooper. Russ was accompanied by his wife, their minor children and an adult cousin. The trooper directed him to the County Courthouse. Russ complied and upon arrival, parked his vehicle and was escorted into the Courthouse by the arresting trooper and two other white law enforcement officers, Charles Ratliff and Norman Draper. Minutes later, Russ returned to the vehicle where his family awaited. He requested and received from his wife sufficient money to post the necessary collateral. He then joined the three officers who were close by observing his actions. The four retraced their steps with Russ again in custody.
A short time thereafter, Mrs. Russ first observed two of the officers leave and minutes later an ambulance depart from the rear of the Courthouse area where her husband had just entered in the officers' custody. She later learned that Mr. Russ, while under detention, had been shot in the center of his forehead by Ratliff and then transported to a hospital. Green and Draper were the sole witnesses to the shooting. Her husband died from the gunshot wound within hours.
The Governor of Arkansas ordered an immediate investigation of the incident by the State Police. In less than one week Ratliff was indicted for voluntary manslaughter. Plaintiffs allege that minutes or transcripts of the grand jury proceedings were not maintained. Ratliff was tried in January, 1972. The jurors' deliberations consumed less than 15 minutes and in that period they selected a foreperson, reviewed and considered the evidence and returned a verdict of "not guilty". Ratliff's weapon was not offered in evidence during his criminal trial. There was no evidence or testimony that Carnell Russ possessed or had access to a weapon while in custody. Indeed, the testimony was to the contrary.
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