Landmark Supreme Court Case: Yates v. United States (1957)
Yates v. United States (1957) is the 104th landmark Supreme Court case, ninth 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.
Yates v. United States (1957)
Fourteen lower echelon officials of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) were charged with violating the Smith Act by being members of the CPUSA in California. The Smith Act made it unlawful to advocate or organize the destruction or overthrow of any government in the United States by force. The appellants claimed that the Communist Party was engaged in passive political activities and that any violation of the Smith Act must involve active attempts to overthrow the government.
Q: Did the Smith Act violate the First Amendment?
A: Yes. the Court reversed the convictions and remanded the cases to a District Court for retrial.
6-1 holding to violate the Smith Act, one must encourage others to take some action, not simply hold or assert beliefs. The First Amendment protected radical and reactionary speech, unless it posed a “clear and present danger.” The Court interpreted the Smith Act in the following manner:
- First, the term “organize” was construed to mean the creation of a new organization, making the Act inapplicable to subsequent organizational acts.
- Second, the Court drew a distinction between the “advocacy and teaching of forcible overthrow as an abstract principle” and the “advocacy and teaching of concrete action for the forcible overthrow of the Government.”
The Court recognized that instances of speech that amounted to “advocacy of action” were “few and far between.” Yates did not rule the Smith Act unconstitutional, but limited its application to such a degree that it became nearly unenforceable. The Yates decision outraged some conservative members of Congress, who introduced legislation to limit judicial review of certain sentences related to sedition and treason, which did not pass.
The decision was announced on the same day as several other decisions in which communists were on the winning side including Watkins v. United States (1957). The day was called “Red Monday” by some anti-communists who disagreed with the decision. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the decisions “the greatest victory the Communist Party in America ever received.” President Eisenhower evaded questions about the decisions at a press conference, but wrote a letter to the Chief Justice after reports that he was “mad as hell” about them.
Next Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Watkins v. United States (1957)
Previous Speech, Press, and Protest Case: Dennis v. United States (1951)
Previous Case: Williamson v Lee Optical (1955)