348 U.S. 375 (1955), 164, Witmer v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 164
Citation:348 U.S. 375, 75 S.Ct. 392, 99 L.Ed. 428
Party Name:Witmer v. United States
Case Date:March 14, 1955
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 375

348 U.S. 375 (1955)

75 S.Ct. 392, 99 L.Ed. 428



United States

No. 164

United States Supreme Court

March 14, 1955

Argued February 1, 1955



1. Petitioner, a member of Jehovah's Witnesses, was convicted of failing to submit to induction into the armed forces in violation of § 12(a) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act.

Held: on the record in this case, this Court cannot find that there was no basis in fact for the Appeal Board's decision denying petitioner classification as a conscientious objector, and his conviction is affirmed. Dickinson v. United States, 346 U.S. 389, distinguished. Pp. 376-383.

(a) In conscientious objector cases, the ultimate question is the sincerity of the registrant in objecting, on religious grounds, to participation in war in any form. Pp. 381-382.

(b) Petitioner's inconsistent statements were sufficient to cast doubt on the sincerity of his claim. Pp. 382-383.

2. After petitioner's application for classification as a farmer and a conscientious objector had been denied, he applied to the Local Board for classification as a minister of the gospel, and appeared before the Board and submitted evidence in support of this claim. Before forwarding the case to the Appeal Board, the Local Board in fact considered this claim and advised petitioner of his continuance in the I-A classification.

Held: this satisfied the requirement of § 1624.2(b) and (c) of the Selective Service Regulations that the case be reopened and the registrant reclassified, though the Board's records did not use the words "reopen" or "reclassify." Pp. 383-384.

213 F.2d 95 affirmed.

Petitioner was convicted of failing to submit to induction into the armed forces in violation of § 12(a) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act. 115 F.Supp. 19. The Court of Appeals affirmed. 213 F.2d 95. This Court granted certiorari. 348 U.S. 812. Affirmed, p. 384.

Page 376

CLARK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, stands convicted of failing to submit to induction into the armed forces in violation of § 12(a) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act, 62 Stat. 622, 50 U.S.C.Appendix, § 462(a). On trial, he centered his defense on the contention that he was wrongfully denied exemption as a conscientious objector. This Term, we have been asked to review a relatively large number of criminal prosecutions involving various procedural and substantive problems encountered in effectuating the congressional policy of exempting conscientious objectors from military service. We have granted petitions for certiorari in this and the three following cases to consider certain of the problems recurring in these prosecutions.1

Section 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act, 62 Stat. 612, as amended, 50 U.S.C.Appendix, § 456(j), provides that no person who, "by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form," shall be required to undergo combatant training or service in the armed forces. The conscientious objector, to prove his claim, fills out a questionnaire in which he makes a short statement of his religious beliefs and cites evidence, such as prior public expression of his views, to demonstrate his sincerity. If, on the basis of this and a personal interview, the local

Page 377

Board decides that the requisite beliefs are sincerely held, the registrant will be classified a conscientious objector. If the local Board denies the claim, the registrant has a right of appeal to the Appeal Board. That Board, before reaching a final decision, refers the registrant's file to the Department of Justice for "inquiry and hearing." As the first step in this auxiliary procedure, the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigates the registrant's claim and refers its report to a hearing officer of the Department of Justice. The registrant may then appear before this officer to present evidence and witnesses in his behalf. After this, the hearing officer makes a report to his superiors in the Department of Justice suggesting a disposition of the case. The Department, after reviewing the registrant's file, the FBI report, and the report of the hearing officer, writes a short recommendation, stating its reasons and whether it has concurred in or overruled the suggestion of the hearing officer. This recommendation of the Department of Justice is transmitted to the Appeal Board and placed in the registrant's file. The statute provides that

the appeal board shall, in making its decision, give consideration to, but shall not be bound to follow, the recommendation of the Department of Justice. . . .

62 Stat. 613, 50 U.S.C.Appendix, § 456(j). The Appeal Board, then, on the basis of the registrant's full file before it, comes to its conclusion, which, in the usual case, is the final determination of the Selective Service System. 62 Stat. [75 S.Ct. 394] 620, 50 U.S.C.Appendix, § 460(b)(3).

There is no direct judicial review of the actions of the Appeal Boards. Questions concerning the classification of the registrant may be raised either in a petition for habeas corpus or as a defense to prosecution for failure to submit to induction into the armed forces. All four of the cases decided today have arisen through the latter route.

Page 378

On January 31, 1951, Witmer filed his classification questionnaire, together with an explanatory letter stating that he worked 40 hours a week in a hat factory and also cultivated a portion of his father's farm. In the letter, Witmer stated that he intended to bring more of the farm under cultivation, and closed,

For this reason, I am appealing to you to grant me an agricultural classification, as I assure you that I will increase production year after year, and contribute a satisfactory amount for the war effort and civilian use.2

In his general questionnaire, Witmer expressly disclaimed any ministerial exemption by writing the phrase, "Does not apply," opposite the line inquiring whether he was a "Minister, or Student Preparing for the Ministry." He did claim to be a conscientious objector, however, although, on the special form for those claiming such classifications, he failed to fill in the specifications supporting his objections to combatant or noncombatant service. On this special form, Witmer wrote,

My training and belief in relation to a Supreme Being involves duties superior to those arising from any human relation. This prevents me from turning aside from those superior duties which I owe to a superior Being.

Therefore, he wrote, he was required to maintain neutrality in the "combats of this world," and was permitted the use of force only "at the command of Almighty God." Although he inserted a negative answer to the question asking whether he had given public expression to his conscientious objector views, he claimed that he had demonstrated his convictions by studying the Bible and by telling others about God's Kingdom and "of how He will put a stop to all wars."

On February 21, 1951, the local Board classified Witmer I-A, denying his claims for classification as a farmer

Page 379

and a conscientious objector. Eight days later, he wrote the Board advising them that he intended to appeal from their action and requesting classification as "a minister of the gospel." Less than a week after posting this claim, he left his job in the hat factory, and, shortly thereafter, at his...

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