Landmark Supreme Court Case: Abrams v. U.S. (1919)
Abrams v. United States (1919) is the 44th landmark Supreme Court case, the second in the Speech, Press, and Protest module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Abrams v. United States (1919)
On August 12, 1919, Hyman Rosansky was arrested after throwing flyers out of a 4th floor window of a hat factory located near the corner of Houston and Crosby, in lower Manhattan, New York. Rosanky had received the flyers the night before while attending an anarchist meeting.
Two different flyers were given to him, one in English, the other in Yiddish. The flyers were an acerbic protest against the Woodrow Wilson administration for interfering with the Russian Revolution in support of the Russian government. The flyers had been printed on or about June 15, 1919, in a basement rented by Jacob Abrams located at 1582 Madison Avenue.
With Rosansky’s help, police arrested six other Russian Jews: Mollie Steimer, Jacob Abrams, Hyman Lachowsky, Jacob Schwartz, Gabriel Prober and Samuel Lipman. All had emigrated from Russia to the United States.
The defendants were indicted for conspiring to violate the Espionage Act of 1917. Although trial had begun on October 10, 1919, actual trial proceedings were set to commence on October 15, 1919. On October 14, Jacob Schwartz died at Bellevue Hospital. The official cause of death was that he succumbed to the Spanish flu.
Trial concluded on October 23, 1919, resulting in the following dispositions
- Gabriel Prober was acquitted
- Hyman Rosansky was convicted and sentenced to 3 years
- Jacob Abrams, Hyman Lachowsky and Samuel Lipman were convicted and sentenced to 20 years and a $1,000 fine
- Mollie Steimer was convicted and sentenced to 15 years and a $5,000 fine.
The defendants appealed their convictions to the United States Supreme Court.
Q: Do the amendments to the Espionage Act or the application of those amendments in this case violate the free speech clause of the first amendment?
A: No. The convictions under the Espionage Act satisfied “clear and present danger” test.
7-2 decision ruling the defendants’ criticism of U.S. involvement in World War I was not protected by the First Amendment, because they advocated a strike in munitions production and the violent overthrow of the government. The 1918 Amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917 (commonly referred to as the Sedition Act), which made it a criminal offense to urge the curtailment of production of the materials necessary to wage the war against Germany with intent to hinder the progress of the war, was upheld.
As in Schenck v. U.S. (1919), the Court emphasized that protections on speech are lower during wartime; however, Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis (dissentinging) argued that the First Amendment protects the right to dissent from the government’s viewpoints and objectives. Protections on speech should not be curtailed unless there is a present danger of immediate evil, or the defendant intends to create such a danger. The evidence in this case consisted of two leaflets, which did not meet the “clear and present danger” test.
Next Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Gitlow v. New York (1925)
Previous Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Schenck v. U.S. (1919)
Next Case: Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon (1922)