Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights

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In 1955 the Civil Rights Subcommittee of the senate judiciary committee became the Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. Subcommittee chair Thomas Hennings, a Missouri Democrat, urged the change because of the exclusive identification of civil rights with race relations. He wanted the subcommittee to assert jurisdiction over a wider range of issues, particularly in response to the anticommunist assault on civil liberties.

The subcommittee's first hearings explored the denial of due process in the loyalty-security programs of the dwight d. eisenhower administration. Members also investigated passport suspensions, wiretapping, electronic eavesdropping, government secrecy, and executive privilege. Senator Hennings sponsored the first "freedom of information act" in 1958, but otherwise the subcommittee produced little legislation during the 1950s. Its main contribution was the obstruction of bills threatening to infringe on civil liberties or restrict the Supreme Court.

The senate regularly referred civil rights bills to the subcommittee, which held hearings on the civil rights bill of 1957. When the southern-dominated Judiciary Committee, chaired by Mississippi Democrat James O. Eastland, refused to report the subcommittee's bill to the floor, the Senate bypassed the committee entirely and debated the House of Representatives' bill instead.

Following Hennings's death in 1960, North Carolina Democrat samuel j. ervin became subcommittee chair. Because Ervin viewed civil rights legislation as an erosion of civil liberties, the subcommittee played no role in the enactment of the civil rights act of 1964 and helped to derail the omnibus civil rights bill of 1967. Yet under Ervin the subcommittee remained committed to civil liberties and reported out a "bill of rights" for mental patients in 1965, the Bail Reform Act of 1966, the Military Justice Act of 1968, and the Indian Bill of Rights in 1968. Over the chair's objections, the Senate ordered the subcommittee to report bills to extend the voting rights act in 1970 and the civil rights commission in 1972.

Having consistently addressed matters of procedural due process, privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and search and seizure, subcommittee members became alarmed over alleged intrusions upon those rights by the administration of richard m. nixon. In 1971 the subcommittee focused attention on the violation of the right of privacy through government data banks and military spying. Senator Ervin strongly opposed administration proposals for preventive detention and fought for repeal of laws allowing no-knock entry. The subcommittee proposed granting reporters protection against compulsory disclosure of sources, heard testimony relating to FBI surveillance of journalists, and conducted what Ervin called "a thorough and unprecedented series of hearings on the free press of America."

Given the conservatism of its parent committee, the subcommittee operated under considerable limitations. Not until Ervin became chair of the Government Operations Committee could he successfully guide to the floor the privacy act of 1974. In part because of his long association with the subcommittee, Ervin became chair of the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities that investigated the watergate scandal.

Lacking Ervin's influence after his retirement, the Subcommittee of Constitutional Rights was abolished during a committee reorganization in 1977. For two decades, however, it had established a creditable record in defense of American rights and liberties.

Donald A. Ritchie

(see also: Bail; Mental Illness and the Constitution; Military Justice.)


Kemper, Donald J. 1965 Decade of Fear: Senator Hennings and Civil Liberties. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

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Senate Subcommittee on Constitutional Rights

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