Watkins v. United States
354 U.S. 178 (1957)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 (1957)

Watkins v. United States

No. 261

Argued March 7, 1957

Decided June 17, 1957

354 U.S. 178




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.

Held: Petitioner was not accorded a fair opportunity to determine whether he was within his rights in refusing to answer, and his conviction was invalid under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 354 U. S. 181-216.

(a) The power of Congress to conduct investigations, inherent in the legislative process, is broad, but it is not unlimited. P. 354 U. S. 187.

(b) Congress has no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification in terms of the functions of Congress. P. 354 U. S. 187.

(c) No inquiry is an end in itself; it must be related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of Congress. P. 354 U. S. 187.

(d) The Bill of Rights is applicable to congressional investigations, as it is to all forms of governmental action. P. 354 U. S. 188.

(e) A congressional investigation is subject to the command that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or press or assembly. Pp. 354 U. S. 196-197.

Page 354 U. S. 179

(f) When First Amendment rights are threatened, the delegation of power to a congressional committee must be clearly revealed in its charter. United States v. Rumely,345 U. S. 41. P. 354 U. S. 198.

(g) A congressional investigation into individual affairs is invalid if unrelated to any legislative purpose, because it is beyond the powers conferred upon Congress by the Constitution. Kilbourn v. Thompson,103 U. S. 168. P. 354 U. S. 198.

(h) It cannot simply be assumed that every congressional investigation is justified by a public need that overbalances any private rights affected, since to do so would be to abdicate the responsibility placed by the Constitution upon the judiciary to insure that Congress does not unjustifiably encroach upon an individual's right of privacy nor abridge his liberty of speech, press, religion or assembly. Pp. 354 U. S. 198-199.

(i) There is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure where the predominant result can be only an invasion of the private rights of individuals. P. 354 U. S. 200.

(j) 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. P. 354 U. S. 201.

(k) 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. Pp. 354 U. S. 201-205.

(l) Every reasonable indulgence of legality must be accorded to the actions of a coordinate branch of our Government, but such deference cannot yield to an unnecessary and unreasonable dissipation of precious constitutional freedoms. P. 354 U. S. 204.

(m) Protected freedoms should not be placed in danger in the absence of a clear determination by the House or Senate that a particular inquiry is justified by specific legislative need. P. 354 U. S. 205.

(n) Congressional investigating committees are restricted to the missions delegated to them -- to acquire certain data to be used by the House or Senate in coping with a problem that falls within its legislative sphere -- and no witness can be compelled to make disclosures on matters outside that area. P. 354 U. S. 206.

Page 354 U. S. 180

(o) 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. P. 354 U. S. 206.

(p) The courts must accord to a defendant indicted under 2 U.S.C. § 192 every right which is guaranteed to defendants in all other criminal cases, including the right to have available information revealing the standard of criminality before the commission of the alleged offense. Pp. 354 U. S. 207-208.

(q) Since the statute defines the crime as refusal to answer "any question pertinent to the question under inquiry," part of the standard of criminality is the pertinency of the questions propounded to the witness. P. 354 U. S. 208.

(r) 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. Sinclair v. United States,279 U. S. 263. Pp. 354 U. S. 208-209.

(s) The authorizing resolution, the remarks of the chairman or members of the committee, or even the nature of the proceedings themselves, might make the "question under inquiry" sufficiently clear to avoid the "vice of vagueness"; but these sources often leave the matter in grave doubt. P. 354 U. S. 209.

(t) In this case, it is not necessary to pass on the question whether the authorizing resolution defines the "question under inquiry" with sufficient clarity, since the Government does not contend that it could serve that purpose. P. 354 U. S. 209.

(u) The opening statement of the Chairman at the outset of the hearings here involved is insufficient to serve that purpose, since it merely paraphrased the authorizing resolution, and gave a very general sketch of the past efforts of the Committee. Pp. 354 U. S. 209-210.

(v) Nor was that purpose served by the action of the full Committee in authorizing the creation of the Subcommittee before which petitioner appeared, since it merely authorized the Chairman to appoint subcommittees "for the purpose of performing any and all acts which the Committee as a whole is authorized to do." Pp. 354 U. S. 211-212.

(w) On the record in this case, especially in view of the precise questions petitioner was charged with refusing to answer, it cannot

Page 354 U. S. 181

be said that the "question under inquiry" was Communist infiltration into labor unions. Pp. 354 U. S. 212-214.

(x) Unless the subject matter of the inquiry has been made to appear with undisputable clarity, it is the duty of the investigative body, upon objection of the witness on grounds of pertinency, to state for the record the subject under inquiry at that time and the manner in which the propounded questions are pertinent thereto. Pp. 354 U. S. 214-215.

(y) The Chairman's response, when petitioner objected to the questions on grounds of pertinency, was inadequate to convey sufficient information as to the pertinency of the questions to the "question under inquiry." Pp. 354 U. S. 214-215.

98 U.S.App.D.C.190, 233 F.2d 681, reversed and remanded.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a review by certiorari of a conviction under 2 U.S.C. § 192 for "contempt of Congress." The misdemeanor is alleged to have been committed during a

Page 354 U. S. 182

hearing before a congressional investigating committee. It is not the case of a truculent or contumacious witness who refuses to answer all questions or who, by boisterous or discourteous conduct, disturbs the decorum of the committee room. Petitioner was prosecuted for refusing to make certain disclosures which he asserted to be beyond the authority of the committee to demand. The controversy thus rests upon fundamental principles of the power of the Congress and the limitations upon that power. We approach the questions presented with conscious awareness of the far-reaching ramifications that can follow from a decision of this nature.

On April 29, 1954, petitioner appeared as a witness in compliance with a subpoena issued by a Subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives. The Subcommittee elicited from petitioner a description of his background in labor union activities. He had been an employee of the International Harvester Company between 1935 and 1953. During the last eleven of those years, he had been on leave of absence to serve as an official of the Farm Equipment Workers International Union, later merged into the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers. He rose to the position of President of District No. 2 of the Farm Equipment Workers, a district defined geographically to include generally Canton and Rock Falls, Illinois, and Dubuque, Iowa. In 1953, petitioner joined the United Automobile Workers International Union as a labor organizer.

Petitioner's name had been mentioned by two witnesses who testified before the Committee at prior hearings. In September, 1952, one Donald O. Spencer admitted having been a Communist from 1943 to 1946. He declared that he had been recruited into the Party with the endorsement and prior approval of petitioner, whom he identified as the then District Vice-President of the Farm Equipment

Page 354 U. S. 183

Workers. [Footnote 1] Spencer also mentioned that petitioner had attended meetings at which only card-carrying Communists were admitted. A month before petitioner testified, one Walter Rumsey stated that he had been recruited into the Party by petitioner. [Footnote 2] Rumsey added that he had paid Party dues to, and later collected dues from, petitioner, who had assumed the name, Sam Brown. Rumsey told the Committee that he left the Party in 1944.

Petitioner answered these allegations freely and without reservation. His attitude toward the inquiry is clearly revealed from the statement he made when the questioning turned to the subject of his past conduct, associations and predilections:

"I am not now nor have I ever been a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Rumsey was wrong when he said I had recruited him into the party, that I had received his dues, that I paid dues to him, and that I had used the alias Sam Brown."

"Spencer was wrong when he termed any meetings which I attended as closed Communist Party meetings."

"I would like to make it clear that, for a period of time from approximately 1942 to 1947, I cooperated with the Communist Party and participated in Communist activities to such a degree that some persons may honestly believe that I was a member of the party."

"I have made contributions upon occasions to Communist causes. I have signed petitions for Communist

Page 354 U. S. 184

causes. I attended caucuses at an FE convention at which Communist Party officials were present."

"Since I freely cooperated with the Communist Party, I have no motive for making the distinction between cooperation and membership except the simple fact that it is the truth. I never carried a Communist Party card. I never accepted discipline, and, indeed, on several occasions, I opposed their position."

"In a special convention held in the summer of 1947, I led the fight for compliance with the Taft-Hartley Act by the FE-CIO International Union. This fight became so bitter that it ended any possibility of future cooperation. [Footnote 3]"

The character of petitioner's testimony on these matters can perhaps best be summarized by the Government's own appraisal in its brief:

"A more complete and candid statement of his past political associations and activities (treating the Communist Party for present purposes as a mere political party) can hardly be imagined. Petitioner certainly was not attempting to conceal or withhold from the Committee his own past political associations, predilections, and preferences. Furthermore, petitioner told the Committee that he was entirely willing to identify for the Committee, and answer any questions it might have concerning, 'those persons whom I knew to be members of the Communist Party,' provided that, 'to [his] best knowledge and belief,' they still were members of the Party. . . . [Footnote 4]"

The Subcommittee, too, was apparently satisfied with petitioner's disclosures. After some further discussion elaborating on the statement, counsel for the Committee

Page 354 U. S. 185

turned to another aspect of Rumsey's testimony. Rumsey had identified a group of persons whom he had known as members of the Communist Party, and counsel began to read this list of names to petitioner. Petitioner stated that he did not know several of the persons. Of those whom he did know, he refused to tell whether he knew them to have been members of the Communist Party. He explained to the Subcommittee why he took such a position:

"I am not going to plead the fifth amendment, but I refuse to answer certain questions that I believe are outside the proper scope of your committee's activities. I will answer any questions which this committee puts to me about myself. I will also answer questions about those persons whom I knew to be members of the Communist Party and whom I believe still are. I will not, however, answer any questions with respect to others with whom I associated in the past. I do not believe that any law in this country requires me to testify about persons who may in the past have been Communist Party members or otherwise engaged in Communist Party activity but who, to my best knowledge and belief, have long since removed themselves from the Communist movement."

"I do not believe that such questions are relevant to the work of this committee, nor do I believe that this committee has the right to undertake the public exposure of persons because of their past activities. I may be wrong, and the committee may have this power, but until and unless a court of law so holds and directs me to answer, I most firmly refuse to discuss the political activities of my past associates. [Footnote 5] "

Page 354 U. S. 186

The Chairman of the Committee submitted a report of petitioner's refusal to answer questions to the House of Representatives. H.R.Rep. No. 1579, 3d Cong., 2d Sess. The House directed the Speaker to certify the Committee's report to the United States Attorney for initiation of criminal prosecution. H.Res. 534, 83d Cong., 2d Sess. [Footnote 6] A seven-count indictment was returned. [Footnote 7] Petitioner waived his right to jury trial, and was found guilty on all counts by the court. The sentence, a fine of $100 and one year in prison, was suspended, and petitioner was placed on probation.

An appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The conviction was reversed by a three-judge panel, one member dissenting. Upon rehearing en banc, the full bench affirmed the conviction with the judges of the original majority in dissent. 98 U.S.App.D.C.190, 233 F.2d 681. We granted certiorari

Page 354 U. S. 187

because of the very important questions of constitutional law presented. 352 U.S. 822.

We start with several basic premises on which there is general agreement. The power of the Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad. It encompasses inquiries concerning the administration of existing laws, as well as proposed or possibly needed statutes. It includes surveys of defects in our social, economic or political system for the purpose of enabling the Congress to remedy them. It comprehends probes into departments of the Federal Government to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste. 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. This was freely conceded by the Solicitor General in his argument of this case. [Footnote 8] Nor is the Congress a law enforcement or trial agency. These are functions of the executive and judicial departments of government. 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.

It is unquestionably the duty of all citizens to cooperate with the Congress in its efforts to obtain the facts needed for intelligent legislative action. It is their unremitting obligation to respond to subpoenas, to respect the dignity of the Congress and its committees, and to testify

Page 354 U. S. 188

fully with respect to matters within the province of proper investigation. This, of course, assumes that the constitutional rights of witnesses will be respected by the Congress as they are in a court of justice. The Bill of Rights is applicable to investigations as to all forms of governmental action. Witnesses cannot be compelled to give evidence against themselves. They cannot be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure. Nor can the First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, or political belief and association be abridged.

The rudiments of the power to punish for "contempt of Congress" come to us from the pages of English history. The origin of privileges and contempts extends back into the period of the emergence of Parliament. The establishment of a legislative body which could challenge the absolute power of the monarch is a long and bitter story. In that struggle, Parliament made broad and varied use of the contempt power. Almost from the beginning, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords claimed absolute and plenary authority over their privileges. This was an independent body of law, described by Coke as lex parliamenti. [Footnote 9] Only Parliament could declare what those privileges were or what new privileges were occasioned, and only Parliament could judge what conduct constituted a breach of privilege.

In particular, this exclusion of lex parliamenti from the lex terrae, or law of the land, precluded judicial review of the exercise of the contempt power or the assertion of privilege. Parliament declared that no court had jurisdiction to consider such questions. In the latter part of the seventeenth century, an action for false imprisonment was brought by one Jay, who had been held in contempt. The defendant, the Serjeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, demurred that he had taken the plaintiff

Page 354 U. S. 189

into custody for breach of privilege. The Chief Justice, Pemberton, overruled the demurrer. Summoned to the bar of the House, the Chief Justice explained that he believed that the assertion of privilege went to the merits of the action, and did not preclude jurisdiction. For his audacity, the Chief Justice was dispatched to Newgate Prison. [Footnote 10]

It seems inevitable that the power claimed by Parliament would have been abused. Unquestionably it was. A few examples illustrate the way in which individual rights were infringed. During the seventeenth century, there was a violent upheaval, both religious and political. This was the time of the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England. It was also the period when the Stuarts proclaimed that the royal prerogative was absolute. Ultimately there were two revolutions, one protracted and bloody, the second without bloodshed. Critical commentary of all kinds was treated as contempt of Parliament in these troubled days. Even clergymen were imprisoned for remarks made in their sermons. [Footnote 11] Perhaps the outstanding case arose from the private conversation of one Floyd, a Catholic, in which he expressed pleasure over the misfortune of the King's Protestant son-in-law and his wife. Floyd was not a member of Parliament. None of the persons concerned was in any way connected with the House of Commons. Nevertheless, that body imposed an humiliating and cruel sentence upon Floyd for contempt. [Footnote 12] The House of Lords intervened,

Page 354 U. S. 190

rebuking the Commons for their extension of the privilege. The Commons acceded and transferred the record of the case to the Lords, who imposed substantially the same penalty. [Footnote 13]

Later in that century, during the reign of Charles II, there was great unrest over the fact that the heir apparent, James, had embraced Catholicism. Anti-Catholic feeling ran high, spilling over a few years later when the infamous rogue, Titus Oates, inflamed the country with rumors of a "Popish Plot" to murder the King. A committee of Parliament was appointed to learn the sources of certain pamphlets that had been appearing. One was entitled: The Grand Question Concerning the Prorogation of this Parliament for a Year and Three Months Stated and Discussed. A Doctor Carey admitted to the committee that he knew the author, but refused to divulge his name. Brought to the bar of the House of Lords, he persisted in this stand. The House imposed a fine of

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