Yates v. United States
Decided on June 17, 1957; 354 US 298


A. Issues Discussed: Freedom of association

B. Legal Question Presented:

Are the petitioners' contentions: (1) that the term "organize" as used in the Smith Act was erroneously construed by the two lower courts; (2) that the trial court's instructions to the jury erroneously excluded from the case the issue of "incitement to action"; (3) that the evidence was so insufficient as to require this Court to direct the acquittal of these petitioners; and (4) that petitioner Schneiderman's conviction was precluded by this Court's judgment in Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, sufficient to overturn their convictions?


A. Background:

"The 14 petitioners, leaders of the Communist Party in California, were indicated in 1951 in a Federal District Court under 3 of the Smith Act and 18 U.S.C. 371 for conspiring (1) to advocate and teach the duty and necessity of overthrowing the Government of the United States by force and violence, and (2) to organize, as the Communist Party of the United States, a society of persons who so advocate and teach, all with the intent of causing the overthrow of the Government by force and violence as speedily as circumstances would permit.

The indictment charged that the conspiracy originated in 1940 and continued down to the date of the indictment and that, in carrying it out, petitioners and their co-conspirators would (a) become members and officers of the Communist Party, with knowledge of its unlawful purposes, and assume leadership in carrying out its policies and activities, (b) cause to be organized units of the Party in California and elsewhere, (c) write and publish articles on such advocacy and teaching, (d) conduct schools for the indoctrination of Party members in such advocacy and teaching, and (e) recruit new Party members, particularly from among persons employed in the key industries of the Nation. It also alleged 23 overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy."

Petitioners were convicted after a jury trial, and their convictions were sustained by the Court of Appeals. On certiorari the Supreme Court reversed.

B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal were filed by David I. Shapiro, Osmond K. Fraenkel and Fred Okrand, for the American Civil Liberties Union in No. 6, and Thomas D. McBride, for Kuzma et al., and Telford Taylor, for Hall, in Nos. 6, 7 and 8.

Ben Margolis argued the cause for petitioners in No. 6. With him on the brief were Norman Leonard, Alexander H. Schullman, A. L. Wirin and Leo Branton, Jr.; Robert W. Kenny argued the cause for petitioner in No. 7. With him on the brief was Benjamin Dreyfus; Augustin Donovan argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioners in No. 8.

Philip R. Monahan argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Rankin, Assistant Attorney General Tompkins and Harold D. Koffsky.


"For reason given hereafter, we conclude that these convictions must be reversed:

1. Since the Communist Party came into being in 1945, and the indictment was not returned until 1951, the three-year statute of limitations had run on the 'organizing' charge, and required the withdrawal of that part of the indictment from the jury's consideration.

(a) Applying the rule that criminal statutes are to be construed strictly, the word 'organize,' as used in the Smith Act, is construed as referring only to acts entering into the creation of a new organization, and not to acts thereafter performed in carrying on its activities, even though the latter may loosely be termed 'organizational.'

(b) The trial court's mistaken construction of the word 'organize' was not harmless error; the circumstances are such as to call for application of the rule which requires a verdict to be set aside where it is supportable on one ground, but not another, and it is impossible to tell which ground the jury selected.

2. The Smith Act does not prohibit advocacy and teaching of forcible overthrow of the Government as an abstract principle, divorced from any effort to instigate action to that end; the trial court's charge to the jury furnished wholly inadequate guidance on this central point in the case; and the conviction cannot be allowed to stand. Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, distinguished.

3. The evidence against five of the petitioners is so clearly insufficient that their acquittal should be ordered, but that as to the others is such as not to justify closing the way to their retrial.

4. Determinations favorable to petitioner Schneiderman made by this Court in Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, a denaturalization proceeding in which he was the prevailing party, are not conclusive in this proceeding under the doctrine of collateral estoppel, and he is not entitled to a judgment of acquittal on that ground."

The Supreme Court "remanded the case to the District Court with instructions to enter judgments of acquittal as to certain petitioners, and to grant a new trial as to the rest."

Justice Vote: 6 Pro vs. 1 Con
  • Harlan, J. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burton, H. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Warren, E. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Frankfurter, F. 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

    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.