341 U.S. 367 (1951), 338, Tenney v. Brandhove

Docket Nº:No. 338
Citation:341 U.S. 367, 71 S.Ct. 783, 95 L.Ed. 1019
Party Name:Tenney v. Brandhove
Case Date:May 21, 1951
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 367

341 U.S. 367 (1951)

71 S.Ct. 783, 95 L.Ed. 1019




No. 338

United States Supreme Court

May 21, 1951

Argued March 1, 1951




Respondent sued petitioners in the Federal District Court for damages under 8 U.S.C. §§ 43 and 47(3), alleging that, in connection with an investigation by a committee of the California Legislature, he had been deprived of rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. Petitioners are the committee and the members thereof, all of whom are members of the legislature.

Held: From the allegations of the complaint, it appears that petitioners were acting in a field where legislators traditionally have power to act; and 8 U.S.C. §§ 43 and 47 (3) do not create civil liability for such conduct. Pp. 369-379.

(a) The privilege of legislators to be free from arrest or civil process for what they do or say in legislative proceedings has been carefully preserved in the formation of our State and National Governments. Pp. 372-375.

(b) By 8 U.S.C. §§43 and 47(3), Congress did not intend to limit this privilege by subjecting legislators to civil liability for acts done within the sphere of legislative activity. P. 376.

(c) The privilege is not destroyed by a claim that the motives of the legislators were improper. P. 377.

(d) In order to find that a legislative committee's investigation has exceeded the bounds of legislative power, it must be obvious that there was a usurpation of functions exclusively vested in the Judiciary or the Executive. P. 378.

(e) Legislative privilege deserves greater respect in a case in which the defendants are members of the legislature than where an official acting on behalf of the legislature is sued or where the legislature seeks the affirmative aid of the courts to assert a privilege. P. 379.

183 F.2d 121, reversed.

In an action brought by respondent against petitioners under 8 U.S.C. §§ 43 and 47(3), the District Court dismissed the complaint. The Court of Appeals reversed. 183 F.2d 121. This Court granted certiorari. 340 U.S. 903. Reversed, p. 379.

Page 369

FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

William Brandhove brought this action in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, alleging that he had been deprived of rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. The defendants are Jack B. Tenney and other members of a committee of the California Legislature, the Senate Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, colloquially known as the Tenney Committee. Also named as defendants are the Committee and Elmer E. Robinson, Mayor of San Francisco.

The action is based on §§ 43 and 47(3) of Title 8 of the United States Code. These sections derive from one of the statutes, passed in 1871, aimed at enforcing the Fourteenth Amendment. Act of April 20, 1871, c. 22, §§ 1, 2, 17 Stat. 13. Section 43 provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.

R.S. § 1979, 8 U.S.C. § 43.

Section 47(3) provides a civil remedy against "two or more persons" who may conspire to deprive another of constitutional rights, as therein defined.1

Page 370

Reduced to its legal essentials, the complaint shows these facts. The Tenney Committee was constituted by a resolution of the California Senate on June 20, 1947. On January 28, 1949, Brandhove circulated a petition among members of the State Legislature. He alleges that it was circulated in order to persuade the Legislature not to appropriate further funds for the Committee. The petition charged that the Committee had used Brandhove as a tool in order

to smear Congressman Franck R. Havenner as a "Red" when he was a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco in 1947, and that the Republican machine in San Francisco and the campaign management of Elmer E. Robinson, Franck Havenner's opponent, conspired with the Tenney Committee to this end.

In view of the conflict between this petition and evidence previously given by Brandhove, the Committee asked local prosecuting officials to institute criminal proceedings against him. The Committee also summoned Brandhove to appear before them at a hearing held on January 29. Testimony was there taken from the Mayor of San Francisco, allegedly a member of the conspiracy. The plaintiff appeared with counsel, but refused to give testimony.

Page 371

For this, he was prosecuted for contempt in the State courts. Upon the jury's failure to return a verdict, this prosecution was dropped. After Brandhove refused to testify, the Chairman quoted testimony given by Brandhove at prior hearings. The Chairman also read into the record a statement concerning an alleged criminal record of Brandhove, a newspaper article denying the truth of his charges, and a denial by the Committee's counsel, who was absent, that Brandhove's charges were true.

Brandhove alleges that the January 29 hearing "was not held for a legislative purpose," but was designed

to intimidate and silence plaintiff and deter and prevent him from effectively exercising his constitutional rights of free speech and to petition the Legislature for redress of grievances, and also to deprive him of the equal protection of the laws, due process of law, and of the enjoyment of equal privileges and immunities as a citizen of the United States under the law, and so did intimidate, silence, deter, and prevent and deprive plaintiff.

Damages of $10,000 were asked "for legal counsel, traveling, hotel accommodations, and other matters pertaining and necessary to his defense" in the contempt proceeding [71 S.Ct. 786] arising out of the Committee hearings. The plaintiff also asked for punitive damages.

The action was dismissed without opinion by the District Judge. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held, however, that the complaint stated a cause of action against the Committee and its members. 183 F.2d 121.2 We brought the case here because important issues are raised concerning the rights of individuals and the power of State legislatures. 340 U.S. 903

Page 372


We are again faced with the Reconstruction legislation which caused the Court such concern in Screws v. United States, 325 U.S. 91, and in the Williams cases decided this term, ante, 70, 97. But, this time, we do not have to wrestle with far-reaching questions of constitutionality or even of construction. We think it is clear that the legislation on which this action is founded does not impose liability on the facts before us, once they are related to the presuppositions of our political history.

The privilege of legislators to be free from arrest or civil process for what they do or say in legislative proceedings has taproots in the Parliamentary struggles of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. As Parliament achieved increasing independence from the Crown, its statement of the privilege grew stronger. In 1523, Sir Thomas More could make only a tentative claim. Roper, Life of Sir Thomas More, in More's Utopia (Adams ed.) 10. In 1668, after a long and bitter struggle, Parliament finally laid the ghost of Charles I, who had prosecuted Sir John Elliot and others for "seditious" speeches in Parliament. Proceedings against Sir John Elliot, 3 How.St.Tr., 294, 332. In 1689, the Bill of Rights declared in unequivocal language:

That the Freedom of Speech, and Debates or Proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any Court or Place out of Parliament.

1 Wm. & Mary, Sess. 2, c. II. See Stockdale v. Hansard, 9 Ad. & El. 1, 113-114 (1839).

Freedom of speech and action in the legislature was taken as a matter of course by those who severed the Colonies from the Crown and founded our Nation. It was deemed so essential for representatives of the people that it was written into the Articles of Confederation and later into the Constitution. Article V of the Articles of Confederation is quite close to the English Bill of Rights: "Freedom of speech and debate in Congress shall not be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Congress. . . ." Article I, § 6, of the Constitution provides:

Page 373

" . . . for any Speech or Debate in either House, [the Senators and Representatives] shall not be questioned in any other Place."

The reason for the privilege is clear. It was well summarized by James Wilson, an influential member of the Committee of Detail which was responsible for the provision in the Federal Constitution.

In order to enable and encourage a representative of the public to discharge his public trust with firmness and success, it is indispensably necessary that he should enjoy the fullest liberty of speech, and that he should be protected from the resentment of everyone, however powerful, to whom the exercise of that liberty may occasion offense.

II Works of James Wilson (Andrews ed. 1896) 38. See the statement of the reason for the privilege in the Report from the Select Committee on the Official Secrets Acts (House of Commons, 1939) xiv.

The provision in the United States Constitution was a reflection of political principles already firmly established in the States. Three State Constitutions adopted before the Federal Constitution specifically protected the privilege. The Maryland Declaration of Rights, Nov. 3, 1776, provided: [71 S.Ct. 787] "That freedom of speech, and debates or proceedings in the Legislature ought not to be impeached in any other court or judicature." Art. VIII. The Massachusetts...

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