National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977)
National Socialist Party of American v. Village of Skokie (1977) is one of the landmark Supreme Court cases featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977)
The village of Skokie, Illinois had a population of approximately 70,000 persons, of whom approximately 40,500 were Jewish. Included within this population were thousands who survived detention in Nazi concentration camps.
On March 20, 1977, Frank Collin, the leader of the National Socialist (“Nazi”) Party of America, informed Skokie’s police chief that the National Socialists intended to march on the village’s sidewalk on May 1. As a result of media attention and a number of phone calls allegedly made by Nazi Party members to residents with “Jewish names”, this planned demonstration became common knowledge among Skokie’s Jewish community.
Collin wrote a letter to Skokie officials stating that the purpose of the demonstration was to protest the Skokie Park District’s ordinance requiring a bond of $350,000 to be posted prior to the issuance of a park permit. He also stated that the demonstration would consist of 30-50 demonstrators marching in single file in front of the Skokie Village Hall. The demonstrators intended to wear uniforms similar to those traditionally worn by Nazis, including swastika armbands. Collin also said that the demonstrators would not make derogatory public statements and would cooperate with reasonable police instructions.
The district court of Cook County conducted a hearing on a motion by the Village of Skokie for a preliminary injunction. The court considered Collin’s letter as an affidavit and took the testimony of a number of Skokie residents. One resident testified that a number of Jewish organizations planned a counter-demonstration for the same day with an expected attendance of 12,000 to 15,000 persons, and that the appearance of Nazi demonstrators could well lead to violence. The mayor of Skokie also testified that the demonstration could lead to uncontrollable violence.
The court entered an order enjoining defendants from marching, walking, or parading or otherwise displaying the swastika on or off their person on May 1, 1977. The Nazi Party applied to the Illinois appellate court for a stay of the district court’s injunction; the appellate court denied their application. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court also denied the petition for a stay. The Nazi Party then filed an application for a stay with Justice John Paul Stevens, who referred the matter to the Court.
Skokie Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did the Illinois Supreme Court improperly deny the National Socialist Party’s request for a stay of the district court’s injunction?
A: Yes. State must provide procedural safeguards, including appellate review, to deny a stay for an injunction depriving protected first amendment rights.
5-4 per curiam opinion ruling if a state seeks to impose an injunction in the face of a substantial claim of First Amendment rights, it must provide strict procedural safeguards, including immediate appellate review. Absent such immediate review, the appellate court must grant a stay of any lower court order restricting the exercise of speech and assembly rights. This opened the door to allowing the National Socialist Party of America to march.