397 U.S. 397 (1970) ]
[397 U.S. 397 , 399] Lee A. Albert, New York City, for petitioners.
Philip Weinberg, New York City, for respondents.
Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
The present controversy, which involves the compatibility of the New York Social Services Law, McKinney's Consol. Laws, c. 55 (c. 184, L. 1969) with 402(a)(23) of the Social Security Act of 1935, as amended, 81 Stat. 898, 42 U.S.C. 602(a)(23) (1964 ed., Supp. IV), arises out of a pendent claim originally included in petitioners' complaint bringing a class action challenging 131-a of the same New York statute as violative of equal protection by virtue of its provision for lesser payments to Aid to Families With Dependent Children recipients in Nassau County than those allowed for New York City residents. Pursuant to the recommendation of Judge Weinstein, a [397 U.S. 397 , 400] three-judge court was convened on April 24, 1969, and a hearing was held. 304 F.Supp. 1350.
Before a decision was rendered New York State amended 131-a to permit the State Commissioner of Social Services to make, in his discretion, grants to recipients in Nassau County equal to those provided for New York City residents. The three-judge panel in a memorandum opinion of May 12, 1969, concluded that the equal protection issue was 'no longer justiciable' and that '(t)he constitutional attack on the provision ( 131- a) as originally adopted has been rendered moot and any attack on the newly adopted subdivision would not be ripe for adjudication ... until there (had) been opportunity for action by state officials ....'1 That court further held that since there existed 'no reason for continuing the three-judge court,' the 'matter' should be 'remanded to the single judge to whom the complaint was originally presented for such further proceedings as are appropriate.' 304 F.Supp. 1354, 1356. On the same day as the three-judge court dissolved itself, Judge Weinstein issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting respondents from reducing or discontinuing payments of 'regular recurring grants and special grants,' payable under the predecessor welfare law, 304 F.Supp. 1356, and the State's elimination of which from the computation of welfare benefits is the subject matter of the controversy now before this Court.
An interlocutory appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals and the case was granted a calendar preference. After hearing oral argument the Court of Appeals, on June 11, entered an order staying the preliminary in- [397 U.S. 397 , 401] junction pending its disposition of the appeal and later converted its stay into an order staying the permanent injunction subsequently issued by the District Court when it granted summary judgment on June 18, 1969, 304 F.Supp. 1356, 1381. On July 16, 1969, the Court of Appeals panel announced its judgment of reversal, accompanied by three opinions. 414 F.2d 170. Chief Judge Lumbard and Judge Hays agreed that the three-judge panel had properly dissolved itself and were of the view, for somewhat different reasons, that Judge Weinstein should not have ruled on the merits of petitioners' statutory claim; they also expressed their opinion that the single-judge District Court (hereinafter District Court) erred on the merits. Judge Feinberg disagreed on all scores, expressing the view that the District Court properly reached and correctly decided the merits of the statutory claim.
Petitioners' application to the author of this opinion, as Circuit Justice, for a stay and an accelerated review was referred by him to the entire Court, and on October 13, 1969, certiorari was granted. 396 U.S. 815 . The request for a stay was denied but the case was set down for early argument.
We now reverse. For essentially those reasons stated in the opinion of the District Court and Circuit Jduge Feinberg's dissent, we think the District Court correctly exercised its discretion by proceeding to the merits. We are also unable to accept the conclusion reached by a majority of the Court of Appeals that 402(a)(23) does not affect States like New York that place no limitation on the level of payments of welfare benefits as determined by their standard of need. For reasons set forth in Part II, we conclude that the present New York program does not fulfill the requirements of 402(a)(23) of the federal statute. [397 U.S. 397 , 402] I
We consider the threshold question of whether subject matter jurisdiction was vested in the District Court to decide this federal statutory challenge to the New York Social Services Law.
That the three-judge court itself not only had jurisdiction but would have been obliged to adjudicate this statutory claim in preference to deciding the original constitutional claim in this case follows from King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309 (1968), where, on an appeal from a three-judge court, we decided the statutory question in order to avoid a constitutional ruling. 392 U.S., at 312 n. 3.
In the case before us the constitutional claim was declared moot prior to decision by the three-judge court and the question arises whether that circumstance removed not only the obligation but destroyed the power of a federal court to adjudicate the pendent claim. 2 We think not. Jurisdiction over federal claims, constitutional or otherwise, is vested, exclusively or concurrently, in the federal district courts. Such courts usually sit as single-judge tribunals. While Congress has determined that certain classes of cases shall be heard in the first instance by a district court composed of three judges, that does not mean that the court qua court loses all [397 U.S. 397 , 403] jurisdiction over the complaint that is initially lodged with it. To the contrary, once petitioners filed their complaint alleging the unconstitutionality of 131-a, the District Court sitting as a one-man tribunal, was properly seised of jurisdiction over the case under 1343( 3) and (4) of Title 28 and could dispose of even the constitutional question either by dismissing the complaint for want of a substantial federal question, Ex parte Poresky, 290 U.S. 30 ( 1933),3 or by granting requested injunctive relief if 'prior decisions ( made) frivolous any claim that (the) state statute on its face (was) not unconstitutional.' Bailey v. Patterson, 369 U.S. 31, 33 , 551 (1962). Even had the constitutional claim not been declared moot, the most appropriate course may well have been to remand to the single district judge for findings and the determination of the statutory claim rather than encumber the district court, at a time when district court calendars are overburdened, by consuming the time of three federal judges in a matter that was not required to be determined by a three-judge court. See Swift & Co. v. Wickham, 382 U.S. 111 (1965).
On remand the District Court correctly considered mootness a factor affecting its discretion, not its power, and balanced the policy considerations that have spawned the doctrine of pendency and the countervailing policy of federalism: the extent of the investment of judicial energy and the character of the claim. Not only had there been hearings and argument prior to dismissal of [397 U.S. 397 , 404] the constitutional claim, but the statutory question is so essentially one 'of federal policy that the argument for exercise of pendent jurisdiction is particularly strong.'4 United Mine Workers v. Gibbs, 383 U.S. 715, 727 , 1139 (1966).
Respondents analogize dismissal for mootness to dismissal for want of a substantial claim and rely on language in United Mine Workers v. Gibbs, to the effect that a federal court should not pass on a state claim when the federal claim falters at the threshold and is 'dismissed before trial.' 5 383 U.S., at 726 . The argument would appear to be that once a federal court loses power over the jurisdiction-conferring claim, it may not consider a pendent claim. They contend that mootness, like insubstantiality, is a threshold jurisdictional defect.
Whether or not the view that an insubstantial federal question does not confer jurisdiction-a maxim more ancient than analytically sound- should now be held to mean that a district court should be considered without discretion, as opposed to power, to hear a pendent claim, we think the respondents' analogy fails. Unlike insubstantiality, which is apparent at the outset, mootness, frequently a matter beyond the control of the parties, may not occur until after substantial time and energy have been expended looking toward the resolution of a dispute that plaintiffs were entitled to bring in a federal court. [397 U.S. 397 , 405] We are not willing to defeat the commonsense policy of pendent jurisdiction-the conservation of judicial energy and the avoidance of multiplicity of litigation-by a conceptual approach that would require jurisdiction over the primary claim at all stages as a prerequisite to resolution of the pendent claim. 6 The Court has shunned this view. See Moore v. New York Cotton Exch., 270 U.S. 593 ( 1926); Hurn v. Oursler, 289 U.S. 238 (1933) ( dictum).7
A further reason given to support the contention that the District Court should have declined to exercise jurisdiction is that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was the appropriate forum, at least in the first instance, for resolution on the merits of the questions before us, and that at the time thi action came to Court HEW was 'engaged in a study of the relationship between Section 602(a)(23) and Section [397 U.S. 397 , 406] 131-a.' 414 F.2d, at 176 (opinion of Judge Hays).8 Petitioners answer, we think correctly, that neither the principle of 'exhaustion of administrative remedies' nor the doctrine of 'primary jurisdiction' has any application to the situation before us. Petitioners do not seek review of an administrative order, nor could they have obtained an administrative ruling since HEW has no procedures whereby welfare recipients may trigger and participate in the Department's review of state welfare programs. Cf. Abbott Laboratories v. Gardner, 387 U.S. 136 (1967); K. Davis, Administrative Law 19.01 (1965); L. Jaffe, Judicial Control of Administrative Action 425 (1965).
That these formal doctrines of administrative law do not preclude federal jurisdiction does not mean, however, that a federal court must deprive itself of the benefit of the expertise of the federal agency that is primarily concerned with these problems. Whenever [397 U.S. 397 , 407] possible the district courts should obtain the views of HEW in those cases where it has not set forth its views, either in a regulation or published opinion, or in cases where there is real doubt as to how the Department's standards apply to the particular state regulation or program. 9
The District Court, in this instance, made considerable effort to learn the views of HEW. The possibility of HEW's participation, either as a party or an amicus, was explored in the District Court and the Department at hat stage determined to remain aloof. We cannot in these circumstances fault the District Court for proceeding to try the case.
We turn to the merits which may be broadly characterized as involving the interpretation of 402(a)(23) of the Social Security Amendments of 1967 and its application to certain changes inaugurated by New York in its method of computing welfare benefits that have resulted in reduced payments to these petitioners and, on a broader scale, decreased by some $ 40 million the State's public assistance undertaking.
We begin with a brief review of the general structure of the Federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC program, one of the four 'categorical assistance' [397 U.S. 397 , 408] programs established by the Social Security Act of 1935.10
The general topography of the AFDC program was mapped in part by this Court in King v. Smith, 392 U.S. 309 (1968 ); and several lower court opinions, in addition to the opinion below, have surveyed the pertinent statutory and regulatory provisions. 11 While participating States must comply with the terms of the federal legislation, see King v. Smith, supra, the program is basically voluntary and States have traditionally been at liberty to pay as little or as much as they choose, and there are, in fact, striking differences in the degree of aid provided among the States.
There are two basic factors that enter into the determination of what AFDC benefits will be paid. First, it is necessary to establish a 'standard of need,' a yardstick for measuring who is eligible for public assistance. Second, it must be decided how much assistance will be given, that is, what 'level of benefits' will be paid. On both scores Congress has always left to the States a great deal of discretion. King v. Smith, 392 U.S., at 318 -2134. Thus, some States include in their 'standard of need' items that others do not take into account. Diversity also exists with respect to the level of benefits in fact paid. 12 Some States impose so-called dollar maximums [397 U.S. 397 , 409] on the amount of public assistance payable to any one individual or family. Such maximums establish the upper limit irrespective of how far short the limitation may fall of the theoretical standard of need. Other States curtail the payments of benefits by a system of 'ratable reductions' whereby all recipients will receive a fixed percentage of the standard of need. 13 It is, of course, possible to pay 100% of need as defined. New York, in fact, purports to do so.
In 1967 the Administration introduced omnibus legislation to amend the social security laws. The relevant AFDC proposals provided for more adequate assistance to welfare recipients and set up several programs for education and training accompanied by child care provisions designed to permit AFDC parents to take advantage of the training programs. In the former respect the AFDC proposals paralleled other provisions that put forward amendments to adjust benefits to recipients of other [397 U.S. 397 , 410] categorical aid to reflect the rise in the cost of living. 14 Thus, in its embryo stage the amendment to 402 was 202(b) of the Administration bill, H.R. 5710, 90th Cong., 1st Sess. (1967), which would have added to 402(a) of the Social Security Act the following clause:
Section 202(b), however, was stillborn and no such provision was contained in the ultimate bill reported out by the House Ways and Means Committee. See H.R. 12080, 90th Cong., 1st Sess.
The Administration's renewed efforts, on behalf of a mandatory increase in benefit payments under the categorical assistance programs,15 met with only limited suc- [397 U.S. 397 , 411] cess, resulting in 213(a) of the Senate version, which provided for a mandatory $7.50 per month increase in the standards and benefits for the adult categories, and 213(b) which is, in substance, the present 402(a ) (23). The Committee's comment on 213(b), to the effect that States would be required 'to price their standards ... to reflect changes in living costs,' tracks the statutory language.'16 [397 U.S. 397 , 412] The Conference Committee eliminated the Senate provision in 213 which would have required an annual adjustment for cost of living, and 402 was enacted. It now provides:
The background of 402(a)(23) reveals little except that we have before us a child born of the silent union of legislative compromise. Thus, Congress, as it frequently does, has voiced its wishes in muted strains and left it to the courts to discern the theme in the cacophony of political understanding. Our chief resources in this undertaking are the words of the statute and those common-sense assumptions that must be made in determining direction without a compass
Reverting to the language of 402(a)(23) we find two separate mandates: first, the States must re-evaluate the component factors that compose their need equation; and, second, any 'maximums' must be adjusted.
We think two broad purposes may be ascribed to 402(a)(23): First, to require States to face up realistically to [397 U.S. 397 , 413] the magnitude of the public assistance requirement and lay bare the extent to which their programs fall short of fulfilling actual need; second to prod the States to apportion their payments on a more equitable basis. Consistent with this interpretation of 402(a) (23), a State may, after recomputing its standard of need, pare down payments to accommodate budgetary realities by reducing the percent of benefits paid or switching to a percent reduction system, but it may not obscure the actual standard of need.
The congressional purpose we discern does not render 402(a)(23) a meaningless exercise in 'bookkeeping.' Congress sometimes legislates by innuendo, making declarations of policy and indicating a preference while requiring measures that though falling short of legislating its goals, serve as a nudge in the preferred directions. In 402(a)(23) Congress has spoken in favor of increases in AFDC payments. While Congress rejected the mandatory adjustment provision in the administration bill, it embodied in legislation the cost-of-living exercise which has both practical and political consequences.
It has the effect of requiring the States to recognize and accept the responsibility for those additional individuals whose income falls short of the standard of need as computed in light of economic realities and to place them among those eligible for the care and training provisions. Secondly, while it leaves the States free to effect downward adjustments in the level of benefits paid, it accomplishes within that framework the goal, however modest, of forcing a State to accept the political consequence of such a cutback and bringing to light the true extent to which actual assistance falls short of the minimum acceptable. Lastly, by imposing on those States that disire to maintain 'maximums' the requirement of an appropriate adjustment, Congress has introduced an incentive to abandon a flat 'maximum' system, [397 U.S. 397 , 414] thereby encouraging those States desirous of containing their welfare budget to shift to a percentage system that will more equitably apportion those funds in fact allocated for welfare and also more accurately reflect the real measure of public assistance being given.
While we do not agree with the broad interpretation given 402(a)(23) by the District Court,17 we cannot accept the conclusion reached by the two-judge majority in the Court of Appeals-that 42(a)(23) does not affect New York. 18 It follows from what we fathom to [397 U.S. 397 , 415] be the congressional purpose that a State may not redefine its standard of need in such a way that it skirts the requirement of re-evaluating its existing standard. This would render the cost-of-living reappraisal a futile, hollow, and, indeed, a deceptive gesture, and would avoid the consequences of increasing the numbers of those eligible and facing up to the failure to allocate sufficient funds to provide for them.
These conclusions, if not compelled by the words of the statute or manifested by legislative history, represent the natural blend of the basic axiom-that courts should construe all legislative enactments to give them some meaning-with the compromise origins of 402(a)(23), set forth above. This background, we think, precludes the more adventuresome reading that petitioners and the District Court would give the statute. See n. 17, supra. This reading is also buttressed by the fact that this construction has been placed on the statute by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. 19 While, in view of Congress' failure to track the Administration proposals and its substitution without comment of the present compromise section, HEW's construction commands less than the usual deference that may be accorded an administrative interpretation based on its expertise, it is entitled to weight as the attempt of an experienced agency to harmonize an obscure enactment with the basic structure of a program it administers. Cf. Zuber v. Allen, 396 U.S. 168, 192 , 327 (1969); Udall v. Tallman, 380 U.S. 1 (1965).
While the application of the statute to the New York program is by no means simple, we think the evidence adduced supports the ultimate finding of the District [397 U.S. 397 , 416] Court, unquestioned by the Court of Appeals, that New York has, in effect, impermissibly lowered its standard of need by eliminating items that were included prior to the enactment of 402(a)(23).
Prior to March 31, 1969, New York computed its standard of need on an individualized basis. Schedules existed showing the cost of particular items of recurring need, for example, food and clothing required by children at given ages. Payments of 'recurring' grants were made no families based on the number of children per household and the age of the oldest child. Additional payments, designated as 'special needs grants,' were also made. Under an experiment in New York City instituted August 27, 1968, many allowances for special needs were eliminated and a flat grant of $100 per person was substituted.
Chapter 184 of the Session Laws, the present 131-a, radically altered the New York approach. In lieu of individualized grants for 'recurring' needs to be supplemented by special grants or the flat $100 grant, New York adopted a system fixing maximum allowances per family based on the number of individuals per household. The maximum dollar amounts were established by ascertaining '(t)he mean age of the oldest child in each size family.' See Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment 9-10. While these family maximums are exclusive of rent and fuel costs the District Court found that '(s) pecial grants were seemingly not included in these computations. No attempt was made to average them out across the state and then to add that figure to that of the basic recurring grant.' 304 F.Supp., at 1368.
The impact of the new system has been to reduce substantially benefits paid to families of these petitioners and of those similarly situated, and to decrease benefits to New York City recipients by almost $ 40,000,000. 304 [397 U.S. 397 , 417] F.Supp., at 1369-1370. The effect of the new program on upstate cases is less severe, with gains to some families apparently cancelling out losses to others, but the net effect is a drastic reduction in overall payments since New York City recipients compose approximately 72% of the State's welfare clientele. 304 F.Supp., at 1369.
Notwithstanding this $40,000,000 decrease in welfare payments after adjustment for increases in the cost of living, the State argues that the present 131-a represents neither an attempt to circumvent federal requirements nor a reduction in the content of its former standard. The conversion to a flat grant maximum system is justified as an advance in administrative efficiency.