Watkins v. United States
Decided June 17, 1957, 354 US 178


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Due process

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was petitioner accorded a fair opportunity to determine whether he was within his rights in refusing to answer the questions of the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities?
II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

Petitioner was convicted of a violation of 2 U.S.C. 192, which makes it a misdemeanor for any person summoned as a witness by either House of Congress or any committee thereof to refuse to answer any question "pertinent to the question under inquiry." 

Summoned to testify before a Subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities, petitioner testified freely about his own activities and associations; but he refused to answer questions as to whether he had known certain other persons to have been members of the Communist Party. He based his refusal on the ground that those questions were outside of the proper scope of the Committee's activities and not relevant to its work. 

No clear understanding of the "question under inquiry" could be gleaned from the resolution authorizing the full Committee, the legislative history thereof, the Committee's practices thereunder, the action authorizing the Subcommittee, the statement of the Chairman at the opening of the hearings or his statement in response to petitioner's protest.

On certiorari the Supreme Court overturned the conviction.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by Osmond K. Fraenkel filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union; and Telford Taylor filed a brief for Metcalf.

Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief were Harold A. Cranefield, Norma Zarky, John Silard, Daniel H. Pollitt and Sidney S. Sachs.

Herbert R. O'Conor filed a brief for the American Bar Association, as amicus curiae, urging affirmance. With him on the brief were Julius Applebaum, Tracy E. Griffin, John M. Palmer, Paul W. Updegraff and Louis C. Wyman.

Solicitor General Rankin argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Assistant Attorney General Tompkins, Philip R. Monahan and Doris H. Spangenburg.
IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"The power of the Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad... But, broad as is this power of inquiry, it is not unlimited. There is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of the Congress... No inquiry is an end in itself; it must be related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of the Congress. Investigations conducted solely for the personal aggrandizement of the investigators or to 'punish' those investigated are indefensible."

"In authorizing an investigation by a committee, it is essential that the Senate or House should spell out the committee's jurisdiction and purpose with sufficient particularity to insure that compulsory process is used only in furtherance of a legislative purpose. The resolution authorizing the Un-American Activities Committee does not satisfy this requirement, especially when read in the light of the practices of the Committee and subsequent actions of the House of Representatives extending the life of the Committee.

When the definition of jurisdictional pertinency is as uncertain and wavering as in the case of the Un-American Activities Committee, it becomes extremely difficult for the Committee to limit its inquiries to statutory pertinency... Due process requires that a witness before a congressional investigating committee should not be compelled to decide, at peril of criminal prosecution, whether to answer questions propounded to him without first knowing the 'question under inquiry' with the same degree of explicitness and clarity that the Due Process Clause requires in the expression of any element of a criminal offense."

The Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the District court with instructions to dismiss the indictment.

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 1 Con
  • Warren, E. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Clark, T. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Burton, H. Took no part in the decision
  • Whittaker, C. Took no part in the decision
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus curiae, urged reversal of the Court of Appeals' Judgment; the Supreme Court reversed in a 6-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent win.