Kesler v. Dept. Of Public Safety

PETITIONER: Harold Beck Kesler
RESPONDENT: Department Of Public Safety, Financial Responsibility Division, State of Utah
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the District of Utah


CITATION: 369 US 153 (1962)
ARGUED: Oct 10, 1961
DECIDED: Mar 26, 1962

E. J. Skeen - For the Petitioner
Gordon A. Madsen - For the Respondent

Facts of the case

In June, 1957, a Utah court entered a judgment against Harold Kesler for negligently operating a motor vehicle. When Kesler failed to pay the judgment for over sixty days, the judgment’s creditors, following Utah’s Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act (UMVSRA), filed the unpaid judgments with Utah’s Department of Public Safety. As a result, the Department suspended Kesler’s driver’s license and vehicle registration until he paid his judgment.

In December, 1959 Kesler, who had still failed to pay the judgment, filed for bankruptcy in federal bankruptcy court. Although this released him from his judgment debts, the Department refused to restore his driver’s license and vehicle registration. The Department claimed that, under the UMVSRA, a bankruptcy proceeding will not release debts for negligently operating a motor vehicle.

The United States District Court for the District of Utah, affirmed the law and refused to both restore his license and to invalidate Utah’s law. A direct appeal to the United States’ Supreme Court followed.


Does Utah’s Motor Vehicle Safety Responsibility Act violate the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution by overriding the federal Bankruptcy Act?

Media for Kesler v. Dept. Of Public Safety

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 10, 1961 in Kesler v. Dept. Of Public Safety

Earl Warren:

Number 14, Harold Beck Kesler, versus Department of Public Safety, Financial Responsibility Division, State of Utah.

Mr. Skeen.

E. J. Skeen:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This is an appeal from a judgment of the three-judge court, denying injunctive relief against the enforcement of the Utah Safety Responsibility statute.

We contend that the Utah statute conflicts with Section 17 of the Bankruptcy Act and is therefore void.

With the permission of the Court, I would like to read a brief reference from the section -- sections of the statute that we have in question here.

They are found on pages 3 and 4 of my brief.

“Whenever any person fails, within 60 days, to satisfy any judgment upon the written request of the judgment creditor or his attorney, it shall be the duty of the clerk of the court or the judge of a court which has no clerk in which such a judgment is rendered within the State to forward to the Commission immediately after expiration of said 60 days, a certified copy of the judgment.”

The following section provides that upon the receipt of the certified copy of the judgment, the Commission shall suspend the license and the registration of the judgment debtor’s vehicle and then follows a subsection, “if the judgment creditor consents in writing in such form as the Commission may prescribe that the judgment debtor be allowed license and registration or non-operating residence operating privilege, the same maybe allowed by the Commission in its discretion for six months, from the date of such consent and thereafter until the consent is revoked.”

The following section provides that such license and registration shall remain so suspended and shall not be renewed or shall any such license registration be thereafter issued in the name of the person unless and until such judgment is stayed, satisfied in full or to the extent hereinafter provided and until the said person gives proof of financial responsibility, then follows this statement.

“The discharge in bankruptcy following the rendering of any such judgment shall not relieve the judgment debtor from any of the requirements of the Act.”

The following section provides for application for -- to the Court for relief, but it’s not involved in this case.

Now, we take the position, Your Honors, that the provisions of the statute I have read give the creditor a measure of control of the suspension and renewal of the driver's license which in effect puts into operation a collection device and what in effect, write into the Section 17 of the Bankruptcy Act another exception, which we contend would be clearly contrary to the constitutional provision granting to the Congress the right to establish the power and authority to establish a uniform bankruptcy law.

Section 17, Your Honors will recall, provides a discharge in bankruptcy shall release a bankrupt from all his provable debts.

The facts in this case are such as to squarely raise this question.

The bankrupt, appellant here, was sued in a state court.

A judgment was recovered against him.

The judgment creditor immediately requested that the copy of the judgment be sent to the Commission.

The Commission suspended his driver's license and registration certificate and the -- following that, the bankrupt or the judgment debtor, filed a petition in bankruptcy and he was discharged.

Following his discharge, the bankrupt made a written application to the Commission to restore his driver's license.

That application was denied and the letter denying it, which is in the record, the Commission stated that -- quoted this provision that a discharge in bankruptcy shall not relieve the judgment debtor.

The bankrupt then filed this proceeding in the bankruptcy court to assure to him the fruits of the litigation and to get injunctive relief through the bankruptcy court against the enforcement of the statute contending as I stated that the statute is void because it conflicts with the bankruptcy law.

Earl Warren:

Mr. Skeen, did the court below determine whether the petitioner had complied with the -- with the provisions of state law concerning the restoration?

E. J. Skeen:

We submitted the case on a stipulated set of facts which outlined what the judgment debtor had done and it's clear in this case that there was a request by the judgment creditor under the statute and we think it's very clear that the -- before starting the proceeding, the bankrupt made a timely application to have his license restored.

Earl Warren:

But did he comply with the Act?

Did they find that he complied with the Act in making his petition for restoration?

I think he could have under that Act could have shown financial responsibility and have had it restored --

E. J. Skeen:


Earl Warren:

-- at least notwithstanding.

Now, did he -- did the Court find whether he'd complied with that section of the law or not?