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RADIO STATION WOW v. JOHNSON

decided: June 18, 1945.

RADIO STATION WOW, INC. ET AL
v.
JOHNSON



CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF NEBRASKA.

Stone, Roberts, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge; Black took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Frankfurter

[ 326 U.S. Page 121]

 MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case concerns the relation of the Federal Communications Act, 48 Stat. 1064, 47 U. S. C. ยง 151 et seq., to the power of a State to adjudicate conflicting claims to the property used by a licensed radio station. At the outset, however, our right to review the decision below is seriously challenged.

The facts relevant to the jurisdictional problem as well as to the main issues are these, summarized as briefly as accuracy permits. Petitioner, Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society, a fraternal benefit association of Nebraska, owns radio station WOW. The Society leased this station for fifteen years to petitioner, Radio Station WOW, Inc., a Nebraska corporation formed to operate the station as lessee. After the Society and the lessee had jointly applied to the Federal Communications Commission for consent to transfer the station license, Johnson, the respondent, a member of the Society, filed this suit to have the lease and the assignment of the license set aside for fraud. While this suit was pending, the Federal Communications Commission consented to assignment of the license, and the Society transferred both the station properties and the license to the lessee. Thereafter the Society answered that "the Federal Communications Commission . . . has and concedes that it has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of plaintiff's action, except jurisdiction to determine the transfer of the license to operate said radio station, which jurisdiction after full and complete showing and notwithstanding objections filed

[ 326 U.S. Page 122]

     thereto, was exercised in the approval of the transfer of said license to the defendant Radio Station WOW, Inc. and further order to the Society to execute and perform the provisions of said lease by virtue of which the possession of said lease property has now been delivered to the lessee, all as more particularly herein found." Respondent's reply admitted "that the Federal Communications Commission has and concedes that it has no jurisdiction over the subject matter of plaintiff's action except jurisdiction to determine the transfer of the license to operate said radio station." The trial court found no fraud and dismissed the suit.

The Supreme Court of Nebraska, three Judges dissenting, reversed and entered judgment for respondent, directing that the lease and license be set aside and that the original position of the parties be restored as nearly as possible. 144 Neb. 406, 13 N. W. 2d 556. The judgment further ordered that an accounting be had of the operation of the station by the lessee since it came into its possession and that the income less operating expenses be returned to the Society.*fn1 On motions for rehearing, the

[ 326 U.S. Page 123]

     petitioners asserted that only the Federal Communications Commission and the federal courts had jurisdiction over the subject matter, not the Nebraska courts. These motions were denied in an opinion in which the Nebraska Supreme Court stated, "We conclude at the outset that the power to license a radio station, or to transfer, assign or annul such a license, is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission. . . . The effect of our former opinion was to vacate the lease of the radio station and to order a return of the property to its former status, the question of the federal license being a question solely for the Federal Communications Commission. Our former opinion should be so construed." The claim that the Nebraska courts had no jurisdiction over the subject matter of the action was thus dealt with: "The fact that the property involved was used in a licensed business was an incident to the suit only. The answer of the defendants, heretofore quoted, squarely contradicts the position they now endeavor to assume. Their position is unsound on its merits and, in addition thereto, it was eliminated from the case by the pleadings they filed in their own behalf." 144 Neb. 432, 14 N. W. 2d 666. Because of the importance of the contention that the State court's decision had invaded the domain of the Federal Communications Commission, we granted certiorari. In the order allowing certiorari we directed attention to the questions whether the judgment is a final one and whether the federal questions raised by the petition for certiorari are properly presented by the record. 323 U.S. 705.

Since its establishment, it has been a marked characteristic of the federal judicial system not to permit an appeal until a litigation has been concluded in the court of first instance. See Heike v. United States, 217 U.S. 423;

[ 326 U.S. Page 124]

     review if the State court calls for the ascertainment by a master or a lower State court of an account upon which a further decree is to be entered. See California National Bank v. Stateler, 171 U.S. 447, 449; Boskey, Finality of State Court Judgments under the Federal Judicial Code (1943) 43 Col. L. Rev. 1002, 1009; Robertson and Kirkham, Jurisdiction of the Supreme Court (1936) p. 58.

Unfortunately, however, the course of our jurisdictional history has not run as smoothly as such a mechanical rule would make it. To enforce it now, or to pronounce it for the future, would involve disregard of at least two controlling precedents, both of them expressing the views of unanimous courts and one of which has stood on our books for nearly a hundred years in an opinion carrying the authority, especially weighty in such matters, of Chief ...


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