Landmark Supreme Court Case: Watkins v. United States (1957)
Watkins v. United States (1957) is the 105th landmark Supreme Court case, tenth 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.
Watkins v. United States (1957)
John Thomas Watkins, a labor union official from Rock Island, Illinois, was convicted of contempt of Congress, a misdemeanor under 2 U.S.C. § 192, for failing to answer questions posed by members of Congress during a hearing held by a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities on April 29, 1954. Watkins was born in July 1910 and ended his formal education in the eighth grade. At the time of his testimony he had four children and was working on behalf of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to unionize workers at a division of Firestone Tire and Rubber in Illinois. The UAW underwrote his legal expenses.
Watkins was asked to name people he knew to be members of the Communist Party. Watkins told the subcommittee that he did not wish to answer such questions and that they were outside the scope of the subjects on which he was summoned to testify and of the committee’s jurisdiction. He said:
I am not going to plead the fifth amendment, but I refuse to answer certain questions that I believe are outside the proper scope of your committee’s activities. I will answer any questions which this committee puts to me about myself. I will also answer questions about those persons whom I knew to be members of the Communist Party and whom I believe still are. I will not, however, answer any questions with respect to others with whom I associated in the past. I do not believe that any law in this country requires me to testify about persons who may in the past have been Communist Party members or otherwise engaged in Communist Party activity but who to my best knowledge and belief have long since removed themselves from the Communist movement.
I do not believe that such questions are relevant to the work of this committee nor do I believe that this committee has the right to undertake the public exposure of persons because of their past activities. I may be wrong, and the committee may have this power, but until and unless a court of law so holds and directs me to answer, I most firmly refuse to discuss the political activities of my past associates.
His conviction carried a fine of $1000 and a one-year suspended prison sentence. Watkins first won a 3–2 decision on appeal to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia but then lost, 6–2, when that court heard the case en banc. The Supreme Court heard arguments on March 7, 1957 and announced its decision on June 17, 1957.
Q: Did the activities of the Un-American Activities Committee constitute an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power?
A: Yes. The activities of the House Committee were beyond the scope of congressional power.
6-1 holding Watkins was unable to determine his obligation to respond to questions posed to him and so was denied due process. Both the authorizing resolution of the Committee and the specific statements made by the Committee to Watkins failed to limit the Committee’s power. Because Watkins had not been given sufficient information describing the pertinency of the questions to the subjects under inquiry, he had not been accorded a fair opportunity to determine whether he was within his rights in refusing to answer. The decision’s impact was limited in that the Court limited the application of the principles it espoused in the case.
Next Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Edwards v. South Carolina (1963)
Previous Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Yates v. United States (1957)
Next Case: Reid v. Covert (1957)