Watkins v. U.S Primary Source eText

Primary Source

Members of the Hollywood industry who were suspected of communist activities were probed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Members of the Hollywood industry who were suspected of communist activities were probed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION. Published by Gale Cengage © BETTMANN/CORBIS. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Supreme Court decision

By: Earl Warren

Date: June 17, 1957

Source: Warren, Earl. Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178 (1957). Available online at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&v... ; website home page: http://www.findlaw.com (accessed March 5, 2003).

About the Author: Earl Warren (1891–1974) received his bachelor's degree from the University of California in 1912 and his law degree there two years later. After three years in private practice, he joined the army in 1917, then began a career in government as deputy city attorney for Oakland. From 1945 to 1953, he was governor of California. He became chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1953, a position he held until 1969. The Warren Court is synonymous with expansion of civil rights and civil liberties.


After World War II (1939–1945), the United States found itself facing a new enemy: the Soviet Union. Although the Soviets were an ally during the war, the nation had negotiated so much power afterwards that many Westerners feared it would attempt to conquer the world. The Cold War began when the alliance with the Soviets turned into a bitter rivalry. When the Soviet Union unexpectedly exploded its own atomic bomb in 1949, the United States feared a nuclear attack. Convinced there were Soviet spies all over the United States, the U.S. government assigned many different agencies to ferret out the communists within. Congress expanded its House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), giving that congressional agency broad powers to investigate anyone it believed to have ties to communism. HUAC was relentless in its pursuits and notably attacked Hollywood, forcing hundreds out of the business with its blacklist and sending others to jail.

HUAC's investigative process was often considered abusive and unfair. It did not matter whether a suspect being questioned by HUAC had been a member of an organization with slight communist connections twenty years ago or was a current member. Suspects were asked: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" If the accused answered yes, he or she was asked to "name names" of associates who had been involved with them. The options were grim. If suspects lied, they could be indicted for perjury; if they refused to name names, they could be indicted for contempt; if they informed on friends and associates, they knew they were ruining more lives—and during this era, many careers and lives were destroyed in this manner.

As public protest against HUAC and its methods mounted, the issue of HUAC's authority appeared several times before the Supreme Court, which initially upheld the power of the committee. One of the later cases challenging HUAC's authority was Watkins v. U.S. John T. Watkins had been called to testify before HUAC. He had freely answered the committee's questions about his own activities, but he refused to name names and invoked the First Amendment, claiming that his freedom of expression was being infringed and that there was no basis for the committee to ask the questions. He was convicted of a misdemeanor, contempt of court, for his refusal to answer.


This Supreme Court decision, upholding the right of witnesses in certain circumstances to refuse to answer questions posed by HUAC, was one of the first decisions to place significant limitation on that committee. Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that the Court deemed the resolution creating HUAC to be too vague and so violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. Most importantly, the Court ruled that, in order to demand an answer during a committee inquiry, the questioner on the committee had to demonstrate the need for the question to be asked and the question asked had to relate to a specific constitutionally granted function of Congress. These were revolutionary controls upon congressional committees.

After Watkins, the Supreme Court upheld several contempt citations from HUAC and similar committees. In some of those cases, the Court argued that the end of preserving the country justified any means. But as the anticommunist hysteria of the Cold War eased over the years, the Court greatly limited the intrusive methods that had been used by HUAC and other congressional investigative committees.

Primary Source: Watkins v. U.S. [excerpt]

SYNOPSIS: Chief Justice Earl Warren argues that Congress has broad powers to investigate, that people should generally cooperate, and that the courts must balance Congress's right to investigate versus individual rights. Warren next examines HUAC's charter, holding that Congress did not give it a clear mission and that this overbroad mission too easily leads to individual rights being trampled, especially since people do not know what is being investigated. Thus, the questions were not permissible and the contempt charges voided.

Mr. Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of the Court.…

We start with several basic premises on which there is general agreement. The power of the Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad.… But, broad as is this power of inquiry, it is not unlimited.…

It is unquestionably the duty of all citizens to cooperate with the Congress in its efforts to obtain the facts needed for intelligent legislative action. It is their unremitting obligation to respond to subpoenas, to respect the dignity of the Congress and its committees and to testify … fully with respect to matters within the province of proper investigation. This, of course, assumes that the constitutional rights of witnesses will be respected by the Congress as they are in a court of justice. The Bill of Rights is applicable to investigations as to all forms of governmental action. Witnesses cannot be compelled to give evidence against themselves. They cannot be subjected to unreasonable search and seizure. Nor can the First Amendment freedoms of speech, press, religion, or political belief and association be abridged.…

A far more difficult task evolved from the claim by witnesses that the committees' interrogations were infringements upon the freedoms of the First Amendment. Clearly, an investigation is subject to the command that the Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or press or assembly. While it is true that there is no statute to be reviewed, and that an investigation is not a law, nevertheless an investigation is part of lawmaking. It is justified solely as an adjunct to the legislative process. The First Amendment may be invoked against infringement of the protected freedoms by law or by lawmaking.

Abuses of the investigative process may imperceptibly lead to abridgment of protected freedoms. The mere summoning of a witness and compelling him to testify, against his will, about his beliefs, expressions or associations is a measure of governmental interference. And when those forced revelations concern matters that are unorthodox, unpopular, or even hateful to the general public, the reaction in the life of the witness may be disastrous. This effect is even more harsh when it is past beliefs, expressions or associations that are disclosed and judged by current standards rather than those contemporary with the matters exposed. Nor does the witness alone suffer the consequences. Those who are identified by witnesses and thereby placed in the same glare of publicity are equally subject to public stigma, scorn and obloquy. Beyond that, there is the more subtle and immeasurable effect upon those who tend to adhere to the most orthodox and uncontroversial views and associations in order to avoid a similar fate at some future time. That this impact is partly the result of non-governmental activity by private persons cannot relieve the investigators of their responsibility for initiating the reaction.…

Accommodation of the congressional need for particular information with the individual and personal interest in privacy is an arduous and delicate task for any court. We do not underestimate the difficulties that would attend such an undertaking. It is manifest that despite the adverse effects which follow upon compelled disclosure of private matters, not all such inquiries are barred.… The critical element is the existence of, and the weight to be ascribed to, the interest of the Congress in demanding disclosures from an unwilling witness. We cannot simply assume, however, that every congressional investigation is justified by a public need that over-balances any private rights affected. To do so would be to abdicate the responsibility placed by the Constitution upon the judiciary to insure that the Congress does not unjustifiably encroach upon an individual's right to privacy nor abridge his liberty of speech, press, religion or assembly.…

An essential premise in this situation is that the House or Senate shall have instructed the committee members on what they are to do with the power delegated to them.… The more vague the committee's charter is, the greater becomes the possibility that the committee's specific actions are not in conformity with the will of the parent House of Congress.

The authorizing resolution of the Un-American Activities Committee was adopted in 1938 when a select committee, under the chairmanship of Representative Dies, was created. Several years later, the Committee was made a standing organ of the House with the same mandate. It defines the Committee's authority as follows:

The Committee on Un-American Activities, as a whole or by subcommittee, is authorized to make from time to time investigations of (1) the extent, character, and objects of unAmerican propaganda activities in the United States, (2) the diffusion within the United States of subversive and un-American propaganda that is instigated from foreign countries or of a domestic origin and attacks the principle of the form of government as guaranteed by our Constitution, and (3) all other questions in relation thereto that would aid Congress in any necessary remedial legislation.

It would be difficult to imagine a less explicit authorizing resolution. Who can define the meaning of "un-American"? What is that single, solitary "principle of the form of government as guaranteed by our Constitution"? There is no need to dwell upon the language, however. At one time, perhaps, the resolution might have been read narrowly to confine the Committee to the subject of propaganda. The events that have transpired in the fifteen years before the interrogation of petitioner make such a construction impossible at this date.…

Combining the language of the resolution with the construction it has been given, it is evident that the preliminary control of the Committee exercised by the House of Representatives is slight or nonexistent. No one could reasonably deduce from the charter the kind of investigation that the Committee was directed to make. As a result, we are asked to engage in a process of retroactive rationalization. Looking backward from the events that transpired, we are asked to uphold the Committee's actions unless it appears that they were clearly not authorized by the charter. As a corollary to this inverse approach, the Government urges that we must view the matter hospitably to the power of the Congress—that if there is any legislative purpose which might have been furthered by the kind of disclosure sought, the witness must be punished for withholding it. No doubt every reasonable indulgence of legality must be accorded to the actions of a coordinate branch of our Government. But such deference cannot yield to an unnecessary and unreasonable dissipation of precious constitutional freedoms.

The Government contends that the public interest at the core of the investigations of the Un-American Activities Committee is the need by the Congress to be informed of efforts to overthrow the Government by force and violence so that adequate legislative safeguards can be erected. From this core, however, the Committee can radiate outward infinitely to any topic thought to be related in some way to armed insurrection. The outer reaches of this domain are known only by the content of "un-American activities." …

The consequences that flow from this situation are manifold.… The Committee is allowed, inessence, to define its own authority, to choose the direction and focus of its activities. In deciding what to do with the power that has been conferred upon them, members of the Committee may act pursuant to motives that seem to them to be the highest. Their decisions, nevertheless, can lead to ruthless exposure of private lives in order to gather data that is neither desired by the Congress nor useful to it. Yet it is impossible in this circumstance, with constitutional freedoms in jeopardy, to declare that the Committee has ranged beyond the area committed to it by its parent assembly because the boundaries are so nebulous.

More important and more fundamental than that, however, it insulates the House that has authorized the investigation from the witnesses who are subjected to the sanctions of compulsory process. There is a wide gulf between the responsibility for the use of investigative power and the actual exercise of that power. This is an especially vital consideration in assuring respect for constitutional liberties. Protected freedoms should not be placed in danger in the absence of a clear determination by the House or the Senate that a particular inquiry is justified by a specific legislative need.

It is, of course, not the function of this Court to prescribe rigid rules for the Congress to follow in drafting resolutions establishing investigating committees.… An excessively broad charter, like that of the House Un-American Activities Committee, places the courts in an untenable position if they are to strike a balance between the public need for a particular interrogation and the right of citizens to carry on their affairs free from unnecessary governmental interference. It is impossible in such a situation to ascertain whether any legislative purpose justifies the disclosures sought and, if so, the importance of that information to the Congress in furtherance of its legislative function. The reason no court can make this critical judgment is that the House of Representatives itself has never made it. Only the legislative assembly initiating an investigation can assay the relative necessity of specific disclosures.…

In fulfillment of their obligation under this statute, the courts must accord to the defendants every right which is guaranteed to defendants in all other criminal cases. Among these is the right to have available, through a sufficiently precise statute, information revealing the standard of criminality before the commission of the alleged offense.… this raises a special problem in that the statute defines the crime as refusal to answer "any question pertinent to the question under inquiry." Part of the standard of criminality, therefore, is the pertinency of the questions propounded to the witness.

The problem attains proportion when viewed from the standpoint of the witness who appears before a congressional committee. He must decide at the time the questions are propounded whether or not to answer.… An erroneous determination on his part, even if made in the utmost good faith, does not exculpate him if the court should later rule that the questions were pertinent to the question under inquiry.

It is obvious that a person compelled to make this choice is entitled to have knowledge of the subject to which the interrogation is deemed pertinent. That knowledge must be available with the same degree of explicitness and clarity that the Due Process Clause requires in the expression of any element of a criminal offense. The "vice of vagueness" must be avoided here as in all other crimes. There are several sources that can outline the "question under inquiry" in such a way that the rules against vagueness are satisfied. The authorizing resolution, the remarks of the chairman or members of the committee, or even the nature of the proceedings themselves, might sometimes make the topic clear. This case demonstrates, however, that these sources often leave the matter in grave doubt.…

… Fundamental fairness demands that no witness be compelled to make such a determination with so little guidance. Unless the subject matter has been made to appear with undisputable clarity, it is the duty of the investigative body, upon objection of the witness on grounds of pertinency, to state for the record the subject under inquiry at that time and the manner in which the propounded questions are pertinent thereto. To be meaningful, the explanation must describe what the topic under inquiry is and the connective reasoning whereby the precise questions asked relate to it.…

We are mindful of the complexities of modern government and the ample scope that must be left to the Congress as the sole constitutional depository of legislative power.… A measure of added care on the part of the House and the Senate in authorizing the use of compulsory process and by their committees in exercising that power would suffice. That is a small price to pay if it serves to uphold the principles of limited, constitutional government without constricting the power of the Congress to inform itself.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded to the District Court with instructions to dismiss the indictment.

It is so ordered.

Further Resources


Cray, Ed. Chief Justice: A Biography of Earl Warren. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Horwitz, Morton J. The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice: A Critical Issue. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Powe, L.A. Scot. The Warren Court and American Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

Schwartz, Bernard. The Warren Court: A Retrospective. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Urofsky, Melvin I. The Warren Court: Justices, Rulings, and Legacy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

Warren, Earl. The Memoirs of Earl Warren. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977.


Gallagher, Susan E. "The History of Privacy in the United States." The Privacy Archive. Available online at http://faculty.uml.edu/sgallagher/ThePrivacyArchive.htm (accessed March 5, 2003).