The Court and Civil Liberty

The Court and Civil Liberty

The June decisions of the Supreme Court were major decisions; this is so even if those to whom the decisions applied directly, or who had initiated the actions that led through the federal courts, have already left the scene. The Communists, reeling under the blow they had received from Mr. Khrushchev, and Joseph McCarthy are no longer members of the American audience. This may have helped the Supreme Court to speak up finally; more important, however, is the fact that the Court in a series of decisions reasserted the Constitution as the foundation of civil liberties.

The Civil Liberties Union calls them “spectacular”; the Supreme Court, it says, “has placed itself squarely on the side of the individual citizen’s rights of free speech and association and warned legislative investigating committees that their powers of inquiry were not unlimited.” Writing in the New Republic, David Riesman calls the decisions “the best news the friends of freedom in this country have had for a long time.” And the Nation writer states that “. -. political inquisition has received a blow from which it may never fully recover”; the Court held that “the very concept, purpose and raison d’être of the political inquiry committees are in violation of the constitutional rights of citizens.”

All this is, by and large, true, but more needs to be done than to fling one’s hat in the air jubilantly. What, first of all, do the three decisions say precisely—and what don’t they say?

In the somewhat related cases of two union officials, Jencks of the Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union and labor organizer John T. Watkins, now of the United Auto Workers, it was decided (U.S. v. Jencks) that the defendant was entitled to see statements about his alleged Communist affiliations made to the FBI by testifying witnesses; it was further decided that a witness cannot be held in contempt if the questions put to him by an investigating body transgress the range of properly defined relevance (U.S. v. Watkins). Judging from the howl that went up (” … what this country needs most today is a Supreme Court of lawyers with a reasonable amount of common sense and who will apply it in deliberations rather than follow untenable detours into a strange philosophy and unsound logic to make the wrong decisions”—Senator John L. McClellan, Chairman of the Senate Investigations Subcommittee and, lately, a top TV personality), it is the Watkins decision that certain quarters find most obnoxious. Taking their lead from the President himself (“I don’t get it,” he remarked at a press conference), the attack has centered upon this decision. Congress, Chief Justice Warren wrote, has extremely broad but “not unlimited” powers to conduct investigations. Its hearings must be confined to gathering information for legislative purposes and not to expose wit...


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