New York Times v. Sullivan (1971): Landmark Supreme Court Cases
New York Times v. United States (1971) is one of the landmark Supreme Court cases 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
- 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.
New York Times v. United States (1971)
New York Times Facts:
By 1971, the United States, although never having declared war, had been engaged in a war with North Vietnam for six years. At this point, about 58,000 American soldiers had died and the government was facing widespread dissent from large portions of the American public.
In 1967 Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara commissioned a “massive top-secret history of the United States role in Indochina”. Daniel Ellsberg, who had helped to produce the report, leaked 43 volumes of the 47-volume, 7,000-page report to reporter Neil Sheehan of The New York Times in March 1971 and the paper began publishing articles outlining the findings.
In what became known as the “Pentagon Papers Case,” the Nixon Administration attempted to prevent the New York Times and Washington Post from publishing materials belonging to a classified Defense Department study regarding the history of United States activities in Vietnam. The President argued that prior restraint was necessary to protect national security.
The government sought a restraining order that prevented the Times from posting any further articles based upon the Pentagon Papers. After initially rejecting a cease publication, the Time’s then abided by the restraining order and District Court then rejected government’s request for an injunction. The Court of Appeals granted it after an en banc hearing.
New York Times Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Did the Nixon Administration’s efforts to prevent the publication of what it termed “classified information” violate the First Amendment?
A: Yes. The government did not overcome the “heavy presumption against” prior restraint of the press.
New York Times Conclusion
Per curiam opinion allowing the New York Times and Washington Post to publish the then classified “Pentagon Papers” ruling “security” can’t abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the 1st Amendment unless the speech causes an inevitable, direct, and immediate event imperiling safety.