Landmark Supreme Court Case: Whitney v. California (1927)
Whitney v. California (1927) is the 53rd landmark Supreme Court case, the fourth 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.
Whitney v. California (1927)
Charlotte Anita Whitney, a member of a prominent California family and a founding member of the Communist Labor Party of California, was prosecuted under California’s Criminal Syndicalism Act of 1919 for helping to organize a group that sought to effect economic and political change through the unlawful use of violence. Whitney argued that she had not intended the organization to act this way and did not plan to aid it in those objectives. She claimed the California law violated the First Amendment.
Q: Did the Criminal Syndicalism Act violate the First or Fourteenth Amendments?
A: No. The Court sustained Whitney’s conviction and held that the Act did not violate the Constitution
Unanimous ruling defendant’s conviction under California’s criminal syndicalism statute for membership in the Communist Labor Party did not violate her free speech rights as protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, because states may constitutionally prohibit speech tending to incite crime, disturb the public peace, or threaten the overthrow of government by unlawful means. In other words, words with a bad tendency can be punished.
Justices Brandeis and Holmes concurred rather than dissented because the record showed evidence of a criminal conspiracy, which meant review was inappropriate without proof that constitutional rights were infringed during the criminal trial. Restrictions on government action under the First and Fourteenth Amendments do not extend to situations in which speech creates a clear and present danger of an evil outcome. The actions that the defendant took posed only a remote potential harm to the public, and she was involved only in contributing to the preparation of the actions. To satisfy the clear and present danger standard, the risk of harm must be severe, probable, and imminent. Broad statements advocating for revolution at some indefinite date in the future are protected by the First Amendment.
Whitney is the precursor to the abandonment of the clear and present danger test Justice William O. Douglas and Hugo L. Black took in the 1950s and 1960s, that is freedom of speech is absolutely protected under the First Amendment. Brandeis does not go that far in Whitney, and his views were ultimately adopted by the Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), in which the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly overruled Whitney. Charlotte Whitney was later pardoned by the Governor of California based on Justice Brandeis’ concurring opinion
Next Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Near v. Minnesota (1931)
Previous Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Gitlow v. New York (1925)
Next Case: Buck v. Bell (1927)
Previous Case: Myers v. U.S. (1926)