United States v. Vuitch

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Columbia

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)

CITATION: 402 US 62 (1971)
ARGUED: Jan 12, 1971
DECIDED: Apr 21, 1971

Sanford Jay Rosen - for the appellant
Stephen Marc Slepin - for the appellees

Facts of the case

The District of Columbia had an abortion statute that prohibits abortion unless “necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life or health.” Milan Vuitch, a licensed physician, was indicted in federal district court for performing abortions that violated this statute. The district court held the abortion statute was unconstitutionally vague. The United States appealed directly to the Supreme Court.


(1) Does the United States Supreme Court have jurisdiction under the Criminal Appeals Act to determine if the District of Columbia’s abortion statute is unconstitutionally vague?

(2) Is a statute that prohibits abortion unless necessary for the preservation for the mother’s life or health unconstitutionally vague?

Media for United States v. Vuitch

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 12, 1971 in United States v. Vuitch

Warren E. Burger:

Mr. Huntington you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Samuel Huntington:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.

This is a direct appeal under the Criminal Appeals Act from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

That Court struck down a major provision of the District of Columbia abortion statute on the grounds that it was unconstitutionally vague on it’s face.

Two indictments were returned in the District of Columbia, charging Appellee, Dr. Milan Vuitch who was a licensed physician, with procuring or attempting to procure two abortions in violation of Section 22-201 of the DC Code.

That Section makes it a crime to procure or attempt to procure an abortion “unless the same were done as necessary for the preservation of the mother’s life or health.”

Appellee’s motion to dismiss the indictment was granted before trial by the District Court on the grounds that the quoted phrase was unconstitutionally vague.

The record does contain no development whatever of any of the facts bearing on the charges contained in the indictment.

Our basic position in this Court is that the District Court erred in striking down the abortion statue for vagueness on its face.

The result of the Court’s decision, if allowed to stand, is that there is now no limitation in the District of Columbia on the performance of abortions by physicians.

We believe that under a proper interpretation of the statute, there is a definite class of situations to which the statute can be applied without running into vagueness problems.

For this reason, we think the case should be remanded to the District Court for further proceedings.

Before reaching the merits of the District Court’s ruling however, there are certain jurisdictional questions, which this Court has requested the parties to brief and argue.

They are as follows; First, does this Court have jurisdiction over this direct appeal under the Criminal Appeals Act, not withstanding the fact that the underlying statute applies only within the District of Columbia.

Second, could the Government have appealed this case to the Court of Appeals under Section 23-105 of the DC Code.

That Section gives the Government the same right of appeal that is given to the defendant and third if the Government could have appealed to the Court of Appeals, should this Court, as a matter of sound judicial administration, abstain from accepting jurisdiction under the Criminal Appeals Act.

First, let me point out two significant developments since the time we filed our brief.

These are the passage of the DC Reform Act and the amendment of the Criminal Appeals Act.

Under the DC Court Reform Act which became law, signed into law last July and it becomes effective February 1 of this year, jurisdiction over “any criminal case under any law applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia will by mid 1972 rest in the Superior Court of the District Columbia.

Appeals from that Court will run to the District Court, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals which of course is not the Circuit Court of Appeals.

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is the Court of record and its judgments are reviewed by this Court in the same way that the State Court judgments are reviewed.

Of more immediate impact and perhaps of conclusive impact on direct appeals of course is the amendment of the Criminal Appeals Act which abolishes direct appeals to this Court.

Now, that does not apply -- it applies only to cases begun and by that we mean, we interpret that to mean begun by indictment, after January 2nd of this year when the law was signed.

So that case does not -- that law does not apply to this case, but the effect of these two laws we submit is to make issues, the jurisdictional issues presented here issues which do not have ongoing significance.

Well, turning --

That means there isn’t much difference as a practical matter whether it's state jurisdiction or not?

Samuel Huntington:

No, I believe it does make a considerable amount of difference whether you take jurisdiction of this case.

I just mean that the issues you decide here, the jurisdictional issues will not have overriding significance in the future.

Well, I look too much in my comment.

We don’t worry to much about jurisdictional questions, just accept the rest of them.