Landmark Supreme Court Case: De Jonge v. Oregon (1937)
De Jonge v. Oregon (1936) is the 71st landmark Supreme Court case, the sixth 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.
De Jonge v. Oregon (1936)
De Jonge Facts:
Oregon’s “criminal syndicalism” statute made it a crime to, among other things:
assist in conducting any assemblage of persons … which teaches or advocates … the doctrine which advocates crime, physical violence, sabotage, or any unlawful acts or methods as a means of accomplishing or effecting industrial or political change or revolution/
Dirk De Jonge addressed an audience regarding jail conditions in the county and a maritime strike in progress in Portland at a meeting called by the Portland branch of the Communist Party on July 27, 1934. De Jonge was a member of the Party, but the meeting was open to the public and had been publicly advertised as such. A raid on the meeting was carried out by Portland police.
De Jonge was arrested and charged with violating the State’s criminal syndicalism statute. Once convicted, De Jonge motioned for an acquittal, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to warrant his conviction, since there was no evidence that either De Jonge nor anyone else at the meeting advocated violent acts or revolution.
The Oregon Supreme Court upheld his conviction, ruling that the indictment did not charge De Jonge with criminal syndicalism, but rather that he:
presided at, conducted and assisted in conducting an assemblage of persons, organization, society and group called by the Communist Party, which was unlawfully teaching and advocating in Multnomah county the doctrine of criminal syndicalism and sabotage.
In other words, De Jonge was convicted for associating with the Communist Party, which at other times, although not at that meeting, had advocated criminal syndicalism. De Jonge took his case to the Supreme Court, arguing that his conviction violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Q: Does Oregon’s criminal syndicalism statute violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: Yes. the Oregon statute, as applied, violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
De Jonge Conclusion
8-0 (one abstension) holding the Oregon statute was unconstitutional as applied in this case. Even though the Communist Party generally advocated violent revolution, the First Amendment bars a prosecution for attending a peaceful public meeting called by that Party. Oregon Supreme Court reversed.
The Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause applies to freedom of assembly, and to preserve that right as well as free speech – principles embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment – not the auspices under which a meeting is held, but the purpose of the meeting and whether the speakers’ remarks transcend the bounds of freedom of speech must be examined, which had not occurred in De Jonge’s case. In the 1950s, with the fear of communism on the rise, the Court ruled in Dennis v. United States (1951) that Eugene Dennis, who was the leader of the Communist Party, violated the Smith Act by advocating the forcible overthrow of the United States government.
Over three decades later, the Supreme Court declared a criminal syndicalism law unconstitutional on its face in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), overruling Whitney (1927) and casting serious doubt on Gitlow (1925). Brandenburg reaffirmed the holding of De Jonge that peaceful political assembly is a right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Next Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Hague v. CIO (1939)
Previous Speech, Press and Protest Case: Near v. Minnesota (1931)
Next Case: Palko v. Connecticut (1937)
Previous Case: NLRB v. Jones and Laughlin (1937)