233 F.2d 681 (D.C. Cir. 1956), 12797, Watkins v. United States

Docket Nº:12797.
Citation:233 F.2d 681
Party Name:John T. WATKINS, Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America, Appellee.
Case Date:April 23, 1956
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

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233 F.2d 681 (D.C. Cir. 1956)

John T. WATKINS, Appellant,


UNITED STATES of America, Appellee.

No. 12797.

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit.

April 23, 1956

Argued en Banc March 6, 1956.

Petition for Rehearing Denied May 22, 1956.

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Mr. Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., Washington, D.C., with whom Mrs. Norma Zarky and Messrs. Daniel H. Pollitt and Sidney S. Sachs, Washington, D.C., were on the brief, for appellant.

Mr. John D. Lane, Asst. U.S. Atty., with whom Messrs. Leo A. Rover, U.S. Atty., and Lewis Carroll and William Hitz, Asst. U.S. Attys., were on the brief, for appellee.


BASTIAN, Circuit Judge.

On May 11, 1954, the House of Representatives voted a contempt citation against appellant and on November 22, 1954, he was indicted under 2 U.S.C.A.§ 192 on seven counts for refusal to answer questions of a subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities as to whether some twenty-nine or thirty named persons had been members of the Communist Party. Having waived his right to trial by jury, appellant was found guilty in the District Court on all counts. He was fined five hundred dollars; execution of a one-year jail term was suspended and appellant was placed on probation. This appeal followed.

Appellant had been named as a member of the Communist Party for the period 1943-1946 by one Donald O. Spencer, who testified before the Committee in a hearing in Chicago in September 1952. Appellant was identified again as a member of the Communist Party in the early 1940's by one Walter Rumsey, who appeared before the Committee in March 1954.

In his appearance before the Committee, appellant answered questions concerning himself. He admitted cooperating with the Communist Party from 1942 to 1946 and answered concerning the extent of this cooperation. He denied past or present membership in the Communist Party and reiterated these denials specifically with respect to the details of both Spencer's and Rumsey's testimony about him. In the course of this questioning, the following occurred:

(Joint Appendix, at 84, 85)

'Mr. Kunzig: Now, I have here a list of names of people, all of whom were identified as Communist Party members by Mr. Rumsey during his recent testimony in Chicago. I am asking you first whether you know these people. My first question: Warner Betterson?'

Watkins said he did not know the first three persons named. Then he was asked about a Harold Fisher whom he knew, and he following ensued (id. at 85, 86):

'Mr. Watkins: Mr. Chairman, in regard to that question, I would like to make a very brief statement I

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prepared in anticipation of this answer.

'Mr. Velde: You may proceed.

'Mr. Watkins: Thank you. I would like to get one thing perfectly clear, Mr. Chairman. I am not going to plead the fifth amendment, but I refuse to answer certain questions that I believe are outside the proper scope of your committee's activities. I will answer any questions which this committee puts to me about myself. I will also answer questions about those persons whom I knew to be members of the Communist Party and whom I believe still are. I will not, however, answer any questions with respect to others with whom I associated in the past. I do not believe that any law in this country requires me to testify about persons who may in the past have been Communist Party members or otherwise engaged in Communist Party activity but who to my best knowledge and belief have long since removed themselves from the Communist movement.

'I do not believe that such questions are relevant to the work of this committee nor do I believe that this committee has the right to undertake the public exposure of persons because of their past activities. I may be wrong, and the committee may have this power, but until and unless a court of law so holds and directs me to answer, I most firmly refuse to discuss the political activities of my past associates.

'Mr. Kunzig: And I want to get this clear for the record. You are not in any way raising the fifth amendment?

'Mr. Watkins: I am not.

'Mr. Kunzig: But you are refusing to answer the question I have just asked you?

'Mr. Watkins: Based upon the statement just read, yes.

'Mr. Kunzig: And you, of course, have advice of counsel. He is sitting right next to you at this moment and you just conferred with him, is that correct?

'Mr. Watkins: That is correct.

'Mr. Scherer: Mr. Chairman, I ask that you direct the witness to answer.

'Mr. Velde: Yes. This committee is set up by the House of Representatives to investigate subversion and subversive propaganda and to report to the House of Representatives for the purpose of remedial legislation.

'The House of Representatives has by a very clear majority, a very large majority, directed us to engage in that type of work, and so we do, as a committee of the House of Representatives, have the authority, the jurisdiction, to ask you concerning your activities in the Communist Party, concerning your knowledge of any other persons who are members of the Communist Party or who have been members of the Communist Party, and so, Mr. Watkins, you are directed to answer the question propounded to you by counsel.

'Now, do you remember the question that was propounded to you?

'Mr. Watkins: I remember the question, Mr. Chairman, and I have read my answer which, among other things, states that your committee may have this power, and I stand on my statement.'

Similar refusals and directions to answer followed and, like those previously described in appellant's testimony with regard to Fisher, they became the subject of the various counts of the indictment. In all, appellant refused to answer, although directed to do so, with respect to approximately thirty persons.

Appellant argues that the trial court erred in failing to grant his motion to dismiss the indictment or for acquittal. He says the Committee was exceeding its constitutional powers as a congressional investigating committee; that 2

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U.S.C.A. § 192 , read together with the Committee's authorizing resolution, was so vague and indefinite as to deprive appellant of due process of law; and that the First Amendment protected appellant against being forced to answer the particular questions asked him.

We must delimit the question before us. A majority of the court is of opinion that Congress has power to investigate the history of the Communist Party and to ask the questions Watkins refused to answer. It would be quite in order for Congress to authorize a committee to investigate the rate of growth or decline of the Communist Party, and so its numerical strength at various times, as part of an inquiry into the extent of the menace it poses and the legislative means that may be appropriate for dealing with that menace. Inquiry whether thirty persons were Communists between 1942 and 1947 would be pertinent to such an investigation. The questions asked Watkins could be asked for a valid legislative purpose.

The precise question upon which the decision must rest is a narrow one. It is whether the Act authorized the committee to ask the questions asked Watkins, in the particular context in which the Committee propounded them, and whether the Committee's purpose in asking the questions was a valid legislative purpose. A majority of the court is of opinion that the questions were pertinent to a valid legislative purpose and were authorized by the Act.

According to the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, 60 Stat. 812, at pages 822, 823, 1 the Committee on Un-American Activities is one of several standing committees elected by the House of Representatives. The act sets forth in no uncertain terms the subject and scope of inquiry intrusted to this Committee. It provides, 60 Stat. at page 828:

"(A) Un-American activities.

"(2) The Committee on Un-American Activities, as a whole or by subcommittee, is authorized to make from time to time investigations of (i) the extent, character, and objects of un-American propaganda activities in the United States, (ii) 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 (iii) all other questions in relation thereto that would aid Congress in any necessary remedial legislation."

In March 1954, the Committee conducted hearings in Chicago. At their commencement the chairman expressed the purpose of the hearings. It was to investigate, for a definite legislative purpose, communist infiltration into labor unions. The chairman stated (Joint Appendix, at 43, 44):

'Mr. Velde: The committee will be in order. I should like to make an opening statement regarding our work here in the city of Chicago. The Congress of the United States, realizing that there are individuals and elements in this country whose aim it is to subvert our constitutional form of government, has established the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In establishing this committee, the Congress has directed that we must investigate and hold hearings, either by the full committee or by a subcommittee, to ascertain the extent and success of subversive activities directed against these United States.

'On the basis of these investigations and hearings, the Committee on Un-American Activities reports its findings to the Congress and makes recommendations from these

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