Landmark Supreme Court Case: Jencks v. United States (1957)
Jencks v. United States (1957) is the 107th landmark Supreme Court case, fourteenth in the Criminal Rights 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.
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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.
Jencks v. United States (1957)
The petitioner Jencks, who was a World War II veteran had encouraged Communist Party members to join various veteran groups in the United States with the intent of converting them to the Communist cause. This was alleged to have occurred in 1946.
Later in 1946, Jencks was employed in the International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers as business agent for several local unions in the Silver City-Bayard, New Mexico area. It was testified one of the first acts Jencks performed as a union official was to meet with the Communist Party organizer for the area. The plan was to move the Amalgamated Union Local 890 into the Communist Party.
It was planned that Jencks would run for Congress on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. It was also anticipated that the Mexican-American Association of Phoenix would be infiltrated and converted to the Communist cause. Attempts would be made of a similar nature in the Mexican-American Association of Albuquerque.
J. W. Ford was a member of the Communist Party of New Mexico from 1946 to September 1950, holding important positions within the Party. In 1948, he testified he became a paid informant for the FBI. He was paid approximately $3,325 for his services during the time covered in the Jencks trial.
Ford’s duties in the Party were to report “any particular defections from the Communist philosophy or any peculiar actions, statements or associations which would endanger the Communist Party of the state.” If a defection reported was considered important, the member “would be called in and would be either severely reprimanded or expelled.” Ford later quit the Party without apparent reprisal.
Harvey Matusow was a member of the Communist Party of New York and was a paid undercover agent of the FBI. In July or August 1950, he traveled to New Mexico where he met with Jencks. He testified that Jencks was excited that Matsuow might relocate to New Mexico.
At trial, he testified Jencks said, “we can use you out here, we need more active Party members.” Subsequently, Matusow began programs in New Mexico to applaud the Soviet Union for disarming, denouncing the United States as the aggressor in Korea, and calling for world peace. He and Jencks discussed ways to slow down the war effort in Korea by strikes at New Mexico mines.
On April 28, 1950, the petitioner Jencks, who was president of the Amalgamated Bayard District Union, Local 890, International Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers, filed an “Affidavit of Non-Communist Union Officer” with the National Labor Relations Board, pursuant to 9 (h) of the National Labor Relations Act. He was convicted under a two-count indictment  charging that he violated 18 U. S. C. 1001 by falsely swearing in that affidavit that he was not on April 28, 1950, a member of the Communist Party or affiliated with such Party. The Court of Appeals of the Fifth Circuit affirmed the conviction and also an order of the District Court denying the petitioner’s motion for a new trial. The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari.
The testimony indicated there had been competing interests in the labor union, in which certain members had wanted to end all affiliation with any Communist organization. Party members were instructed to not carry membership cards and deny any association with the Communist Party. It was in this context that Jencks filled out the affidavit required by the Taft-Hartley Act testifying that he was not a member of the Communist Party. General instructions from the Party were to not sign the affidavit, at all.
Former Party members testified they and the petitioner, as members of the Communist Party of New Mexico, had been expressly instructed to conceal their membership and not to carry membership cards. They also testified the Party kept no membership records or minutes of membership meetings, and such meetings were secretly arranged and clandestinely held. One of the witnesses said that special care was taken to conceal the Party membership of members like the petitioner. It was stated at trial, “occupying strategic and important positions in labor unions and other organizations where public knowledge of their membership to non-Communists would jeopardize their position in the organization”, had been a goal of the Communist Party of the United States.
Because of this, the Government did not attempt to prove Jencks was an actual member of the Communist Party. Instead, the prosecution relied on entirely circumstantial evidence. Matusow testified he had conversations with the petitioner, concerning his activities in the Communist Party. The Government also attached an Affidavit of Non-Communist Union Officer in which the petitioner had affirmed that he was not a member of the Communist Party.
Two errors in the trial were alleged. Harvey Matusow and J. W. Ford, the Government’s principal witnesses, were Communist Party members paid by the FBI contemporaneously to make oral or written reports of the Communist Party activities in which they participated. They made such reports to the FBI of activities allegedly participated in by the petitioner, Jencks, about which they testified at the trial. Error is asserted by the trial judge of the petitioner’s motions to direct the Government to produce these reports for inspection and use in cross-examining Matusow and Ford. Error is also alleged in the instructions given to the jury on membership, affiliation and the credibility of the informers.
At trial, Ford and Matusow were subjected to vigorous cross-examination. A request for documents they had relied upon for testimony was denied without explanation by the trial judge. Jencks requested the testimony of the informants to review their credibility and admissibility in court. The trial court denied his request without stating the reasons, and Jencks was found guilty on two counts of communist activity and sentenced to five years imprisonment for each offense. Jencks appealed the lower court’s decision on the grounds that the informants’ reports should have been provided for review to determine their use in the trial and on the grounds that the jury was improperly instructed on the definitions of political party membership. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision of the lower court.
Q: Can a defendant request testimonial documents for admissibility in trial if those documents potentially contain classified information and possible disclosure of state secrets?
A: Yes. The government’s reports should have been produced for review for their admission in court.
7-1 holding the government must produce documents relied upon by government witnesses in federal criminal procedures. The denial of the motions for production of the documents was erroneous, and the conviction was reversed. Specifically:
- The Petitioner was not required to lay a preliminary foundation for his motion, showing inconsistency between the contents of the reports and the testimony of the government agents, because a sufficient foundation was established by their testimony that their reports were of the events and activities related in their testimony.
- Petitioner was entitled to an order directing the Government to produce for inspection all written reports of the FBI. agents in its possession, and, when orally made, as recorded by the FBI., touching events and activities as to which they testified at trial.
- Petitioner is entitled to inspect the reports to decide whether to use them in his defense.
- The practice of producing government documents to the trial judge for his determination of relevancy and materiality, without a hearing involving the accused, is disapproved.
- Only after inspection of the reports by the accused, must the trial judge determine admissibility of the contents and the method to be employed for the elimination of parts immaterial or irrelevant.
- Criminal action must be dismissed when the Government, on the ground of privilege, elects not to comply with an order to produce, for the accused’s inspection and for admission in evidence, relevant statements or reports in its possession of government witnesses touching the subject matter of their testimony at trial.
- The burden is the Government’s, not to be shifted to the trial judge, to decide whether the public prejudice of allowing the crime to go unpunished is greater than that attendant upon the possible disclosure of state secrets and other confidential information in the Government’s possession.
- The proper remedy in cases which the Government chooses not to disclose or produce documents it deems sensitive, or wants to keep private for security reasons is dismissal of the criminal charges.
A concern for national security must be weighed against prosecuting criminal action if the criminal action prosecution relies on documents that, if released, would threaten national security. Based on this weighing test, the documents should have been provided for review of admissibility in a new trial. Criminal action must be dismissed if the government refuses to release information as a matter of national security.
Justice Harold Burton wrote a concurring opinion in which he agreed that the accused had the right to review the documents as evidence against him but argued that the disclosure of the documents should not guarantee a new trial. Rather, the documents should be reviewed and, if found to contain information that discredited the FBI informants’ testimony, then there should be a new trial. However, in this case Justice Burton agreed there should be a new trial on the grounds that the jury was improperly instructed on the requirements of membership to a political party. Justice John M. Harlan joined in the concurrence.
Justice Tom C. Clark dissented and argued that, if information containing national secrets and issues of national security were available for the accused in criminal prosecutions, then national security would be greatly compromised. Justice Clark also wrote that the jury was properly instructed on the definition of membership to a political party.
Next Criminal Rights Case: Mapp v. Ohio (1961)
Previous Criminal Rights Case: U.S. v. Kahriger (1953)
Next Case: Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1960)
Previous Case: Reid v. Covert (1957)