345 U.S. 41 (1953), 87, United States v. Rumely

Docket Nº:No. 87
Citation:345 U.S. 41, 73 S.Ct. 543, 97 L.Ed. 770
Party Name:United States v. Rumely
Case Date:March 09, 1953
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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345 U.S. 41 (1953)

73 S.Ct. 543, 97 L.Ed. 770

United States

v.

Rumely

No. 87

United States Supreme Court

March 9, 1953

Argued December 11-12, 1952

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent was secretary of an organization which, among other things, engaged in the sale of books of a political nature. He refused to disclose to a committed of Congress the names of those who made bulk purchases of these books for further distribution, and was convicted under R.S. § 102, as amended, which provides penalties for refusal to give testimony or to produce relevant papers "upon any matter" under congressional inquiry. Under the resolution empowering it to function, the Committee was

authorized and directed to conduct a study and investigation of (1) all lobbying activities intended to influence, encourage, promote, or retard legislation; and (2) all activities of agencies of the Federal Government intended to influence, encourage, promote, or retard legislation.

Held: The Committee was without power to exact the information sought from respondent. Pp. 42-48.

(a) To construe the resolution as authorizing the Committee to inquire into all efforts of private individuals to influence public opinion through books and periodicals, however remote the radiations of influence which they may exert upon the ultimate legislative process, would raise doubts of constitutionality in view of the prohibition of the First Amendment. P. 46.

(b) The phrase "lobbying activities" in the resolution is to be construed as lobbying in the commonly accepted sense of "representations made directly to the Congress, its members, or its committees," and not as extending to attempts "to saturate the thinking of the community." P. 47.

(c) The scope of the resolution defining respondent's duty to answer must be ascertained as of the time of his refusal, and cannot be enlarged by subsequent action of Congress. Pp. 47-48.

90 U.S.App.D.C. 382, 197 F.2d 155, affirmed.

Respondent was convicted under R.S. § 102, as amended, 2 U.S.C. § 192, for refusal to give certain information to a congressional committee. The Court of

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Appeals reversed. 90 U.S.App.D.C. 382, 197 F.2d 166. This Court granted certiorari. 344 U.S. 812. Affirmed, p. 48.

FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The respondent Rumely was Secretary of an organization known as the Committee for Constitutional Government, which, among other things, engaged in the sale of books of a particular political tendentiousness. He refused to disclose to the House Select Committee on Lobbying Activities the names of those who made bulk purchases of these books for further distribution, and was convicted under R.S. § 102, as amended, 52 Stat. 942, 2 U.S.C. § 192, which provides penalties for refusal to give testimony or to produce relevant papers "upon any matter" under congressional inquiry. The Court of Appeals reversed, one judge dissenting. It held that the committee before which Rumely refused to furnish this information had no authority to compel its production. 90 U.S.App.D.C. 382, 197 F.2d 166. Since the Court of Appeals thus took a view of the committee's authority contrary to that adopted by the House in citing Rumely for contempt, we granted certiorari. 344 U.S. 812. This issue -- whether the committee was authorized to

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exact the information which the witness withheld -- must first be settled before we may consider whether Congress had the power to confer upon the committee the authority which it claimed.

Although we are here dealing with a resolution of the House of Representatives, the problem is much the same as that which confronts the Court when called upon to construe a statute that carries the seeds of constitutional controversy. The potential constitutional questions have far-reaching import. We are asked to recognize the penetrating and pervasive scope of the investigative power of Congress. The reach that may be claimed for that power is indicated by Woodrow Wilson's characterization of it:

It is the proper duty of a representative body to look diligently into every affair of government and to talk much about what it sees. It is meant to be the eyes and the voice, and to embody the wisdom and will of its constituents. Unless Congress have and use every means of acquainting itself with the acts and the disposition of the administrative agents of the government, the country must be helpless to learn how it is being served; and unless Congress both scrutinize these things and sift them by every form of discussion, the country must remain in embarrassing, crippling ignorance of the very affairs which it is most important that it should understand and direct. The informing function of Congress should be preferred [73 S.Ct. 545] even to its legislative function.

Wilson, Congressional Government, 303.

Although the indispensable "informing function of Congress" is not to be minimized, determination of the "rights" which this function implies illustrates the common juristic situation thus defined for the Court by Mr. Justice Holmes:

All rights tend to declare themselves

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absolute to their logical extreme. Yet all in fact are limited by the neighborhood of principles of policy which are other than those on which the particular right is founded, and which become strong enough to hold their own when a certain point is reached.

Hudson County Water Co. v. McCarter, 209 U.S. 349, 355. President Wilson did not write in light of the history of events since he wrote; more particularly, he did not write of the investigative power of Congress in the context of the First Amendment. And so we would have to be that "blind" Court, against which Mr. Chief Justice Taft admonished in a famous passage, Child Labor Tax Case, 259 U.S. 20, 37, that does not see what "[a]ll others can see and understand" not to know that there is wide concern, both in and out of Congress, over some aspects of the exercise of the congressional power of investigation.

Accommodation of these contending principles -- the one underlying the power of Congress to investigate, the other at the basis of the limitation imposed by the First Amendment -- is not called for until after we have construed the scope of the authority which the House of Representatives gave to the Select Committee on Lobbying Activities. The pertinent portion of the resolution of August 12, 1949, reads:

The Committee is authorized and directed to conduct a study and investigation of (1) all lobbying activities intended to influence, encourage, promote, or retard legislation; and (2) all activities of agencies of the Federal Government intended to influence, encourage, promote, or retard legislation.

H.Res. 298, 81st Cong., 1st Sess.

This is the controlling charter of the committee's powers. Its right to exact testimony and to call for the production of documents must be found in this language. The resolution must speak for itself, since Congress put

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no gloss upon it at the time of its passage. Nor is any help to be had from the fact that the purpose of the Buchanan Committee, as the Select Committee was known, was to try to "find out how well [the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946, 60 Stat. 839] worked." 96 Cong.Rec. 13882. That statute had a section of definitions, but Congress did not define the terms "lobbying" or "lobbying activities" in that Act, for it did not use them. Accordingly, the phrase "lobbying activities" in the resolution must be given the meaning that may fairly be attributed to it, having special regard for the principle of constitutional adjudication which makes it decisive in the choice of fair alternatives that one construction may raise serious constitutional questions avoided by another. In a long series of decisions, we have acted on this principle. In the words of Mr. Chief Justice Taft, "[i]t is our duty in the interpretation of federal statutes to reach a conclusion which will avoid serious doubt of their constitutionality." Richmond Screw Anchor Co. v. United States, 275 U.S. 331, 346. Again, what Congress has written, we said through Mr. Chief Justice (then Mr. Justice) Stone, "must be construed with an eye to possible constitutional limitations so as to avoid doubts as to its...

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