Poe v. Ullman Case Brief

Why is the case important?

The Appellants, several couples and their physician (Appellants), brought suit, seeking the overturn of a Connecticut statute prohibiting the use of contraceptive devices and the giving of medical advice on the use of such devices.

Facts of the case

Paul and Pauline Poe, a married couple, decided to use contraceptives to prevent a fourth pregnancy after their first three children had died in infancy. Another woman, Jane Doe, sought to obtain access to contraceptives in order to forestall a second pregnancy that could be life-threatening. Since the late 1800s, Connecticut had prohibited the distribution and use of medical advice on contraceptives, although these laws were not regularly forced.. The Poes and Doe argued that the laws violated the Fourteenth Amendment.


Is the petitioners’ claim ripe for judicial review?


No. Judgment affirmed. Connecticut has never attempted to fully prosecute any case under the statute. Because of this, not only have the Appellants not suffered injury in fact from the statute, but there is no evidence that they would be prosecuted for acting in violation of the statute.


Insofar as appellants seek to justify the exercise of the court’s declaratory power by the threat of prosecution, facts which they can no more negative by complaint and demurrer than they could by stipulation preclude a determination on the merits. It is clear that the mere existence of a state penal statute would constitute insufficient grounds to support a federal court’s adjudication of its constitutionality in proceedings brought against the State’s prosecuting officials if real threat of enforcement is wanting. If the prosecutor expressly agrees not to prosecute, a suit against him for declaratory and injunctive relief is not such an adversary case as will be reviewed  Eighty years of Connecticut history demonstrate a similar, albeit tacit agreement. The fact that Connecticut has not chosen to press the enforcement of this statute deprives these controversies of the immediacy which is an indispensable condition of constitutional adjudication. The Court cannot be umpire to debates concerning harmless, empty shadows.

  • Case Brief: 1961
  • Appellant: Poe
  • Appellee: Ullman
  • Decided by: Warren Court

Citation: 367 US 497 (1961)
Argued: Mar 1 – 2, 1961
Decided: Jun 19, 1961