Watkins v. United States 354 U.S. 178 (1957) Sweezy v. New Hampshire 354 U.S. 234 (1957)
WATKINS v. UNITED STATES 354 U.S. 178 (1957) SWEEZY v. NEW HAMPSHIRE 354 U.S. 234 (1957)
Watkins, a labor leader called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, had been told by the union president that he would lose his position if he claimed his right against self-incrimination. He thus claimed a first amendment privilege when he declined to answer the committee's questions about the membership of other people in the Communist party. He also objected that these questions were beyond the scope of the committee's activities. For his refusal to answer, Watkins was convicted of contempt of Congress. The Supreme Court reversed his conviction, 8–1.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice earl warren rested decision on a narrow point: Watkins had been denied procedural due process, for he had not been given a sufficient explanation of the subject of inquiry, and thus could not know whether the committee's questions were "pertinent to the questions under inquiry," as the contempt statute specified. Warren's opinion, however, strongly suggested that the Court would be prepared to confront the whole issue of legislative investigations into political association. He remarked on the use of such investigations to subject people to public stigma, and the absence in such proceedings of effective protection of procedural fairness. "We have no doubt that there is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure," Warren wrote. "Who can define the meaning of "un-American'?" Justice tom c. clark, the sole dissenter, appeared to object as much to these broad obiter dicta as to the actual decision. He complained of the Court's "mischievous curbing of the informing function of Congress."
In Sweezy, a companion case to Watkins, the Court held, 6–2, that a state legislative investigation could not constitutionally compel Sweezy to answer questions about the Progressive party and about a lecture he had given at the University of New Hampshire. Chief Justice Warren wrote a plurality opinion for four Justices, concluding that Sweezy's contempt conviction violated procedural due process because the state legislature had not clearly authorized the attorney general, who conducted the investigation, to inquire into those subjects. Justice felix frankfurter, joined by Justice john marshall harlan, concurred, arguing that the state had unconstitutionally invaded Sweezy's fourteenth amendment liberty—here, his "political autonomy," a plain reference to the First Amendment. Justice Frankfurter used a (for him) familiar balancing test, but articulated a compelling state interest standard for cases of invasions of political privacy. The Frankfurter opinion is notable for its early articulation of the constitutional dimension of academic freedom. It also led, the following year, to the Court's explicit recognition of the freedom of association in naacp v. alabama (1958). Justice Clark again dissented, now joined by Justice harold h. burton.
A number of members of Congress reacted angrily to these opinions and others decided the same year, such as yates v. united states (1957) and Jencks v. United States (1957). (See jencks act.) Bills were proposed in Congress to limit the Supreme Court's jurisdiction over cases involving controls of subversive activities. In the event, not much "curbing" was done, and in retrospect Watkins and Sweezy appeared to be no more than trial balloons. Two years later, in barenblatt v. united states (1959), a majority of the Court backed away from the expected confrontation with Congress.
Kenneth L. Karst