Powell v. McCormack 395 U.S. 486 (1969)

views updated

POWELL v. MCCORMACK 395 U.S. 486 (1969)

Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a flamboyant clergyman of indifferent ethics, for many years represented a New York City district in Congress. In 1967, after Powell won reelection despite a conviction for criminal contempt of court and a record of misappropriation of public funds, the house of representatives denied him a seat. In a special election, he received eighty-six percent of the votes and again appeared to take his seat. The House then passed a resolution "excluding" Powell.

Powell and thirteen of his constituents then sued Speaker John McCormack and several other officers of the House of Representatives. Powell lost in both the District Court and the Court of Appeals, and his case was not heard by the Supreme Court until after the Ninetieth Congress had adjourned. Powell had, in the meanwhile, been reelected, and was seated as a member of the Ninety-First Congress.

The Supreme Court, in an 8–1 decision, declined to hold the case moot, finding that Powell's claim for back pay was sufficient for a justiciable controversy. In an opinion by Chief Justice earl warren, the Court proceeded to overturn some long-standing assumptions about the constitutional status of congressional membership.

The Court held that the houses of Congress, although they are the judges of the qualifications provided in the Constitution itself (Article I, section 5) may not add to the qualifications provided in the Constitution (Article I, section 2). If a person elected to the House is qualified by age, citizenship, and residence, he may not be excluded. Of course, once a member has been seated, he may be expelled by a two-thirds vote for any offense the House believes is "inconsistent with the trust and duty of a member" (In re Chapman, 1897). But, in Powell's case the Court held that exclusion was not equivalent to expulsion.

(See political questions.)

Dennis J. Mahoney