349 U.S. 155 (1955), 8, Quinn v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 8
Citation:349 U.S. 155, 75 S.Ct. 668, 99 L.Ed. 964
Party Name:Quinn v. United States
Case Date:May 23, 1955
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 155

349 U.S. 155 (1955)

75 S.Ct. 668, 99 L.Ed. 964



United States

No. 8

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 1955

Argued April 4-5, 1955




Petitioner and two others were summoned to testify before a congressional investigating committee. One of them refused to say whether he was or had been a member of the Communist Party, basing his refusal on "the First and Fifth Amendments," as well as "the First Amendment to the Constitution, supplemented by the Fifth Amendment." Petitioner adopted the other's statement as his own, and refused to answer the same question. The committee did not ask him to state more specifically the ground for his refusal to answer, and did not specifically overrule his objection or direct him to answer.

Held: in his trial for contempt of Congress under 2 U.S.C. § 192, the District Court should have entered a judgment of acquittal. Pp. 156-170.

1. Petitioner's references to the Fifth Amendment sufficiently invoked his constitutional privilege against self-incrimination. Pp. 160-165.

(a) The constitutional guaranty against self-incrimination must be construed liberally in favor of the right it was intended to secure -- especially in criminal trials for refusal to answer. Pp. 161-162.

(b) An answer to the question whether he was a member of the Communist Party might have tended to incriminate petitioner. Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 159. P. 162.

(c) If an objection to a question is made in any language that a committee may reasonably be expected to understand as an attempt to invoke the privilege, it must be respected both by the committee and by a court in a prosecution under § 192. Pp. 162-163.

(d) The mere fact that petitioner also relied on the First Amendment did not preclude his reliance on the Fifth Amendment as well. P. 163.

(e) Petitioner's references to the Fifth Amendment were sufficient to put the committee on notice of an apparent claim of the privilege; and it then became incumbent on the committee either to accept the claim or to ask petitioner whether he was, in fact, invoking the privilege. Pp. 163-165.

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2. On the record in this case, there was not adequate proof of a deliberate intentional refusal to answer, which is an essential element of a violation of 2 U.S.C. § 192. Pp. 165-170.

(a) This element of the offense, like any other, must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. P. 115.

(b) Unless the witness is clearly apprised that the committee demands his answer notwithstanding his objection, there can be no conviction under § 192 for his refusal to answer. Pp. 165-166.

(c) There is nothing in the record of the committee hearing from which petitioner could have determined with a reasonable degree of certainty that the committee demanded his answer despite his objection. Pp. 166-167.

(d) By the enactment of 2 U.S.C. § 192, Congress did not intend to dispense with the traditional requirement that the witness must be clearly apprised that an answer is demanded notwithstanding his objection. Pp. 167-170.

91 U.S.App.D.C. 344, 203 F.2d 20, reversed.

WARREN, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted for contempt of Congress under 2 U.S.C. § 192 in the District Court of the District of Columbia. Section 192 provides for the punishment of any witness before a congressional committee "who . . . refuses to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry. . . ."1 On appeal, the Court of Appeals

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for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.2 Claiming that the Court of Appeals should have directed an acquittal, petitioner applied to this Court for certiorari. We granted the writ because of the fundamental and recurrent character of the questions presented.3

Pursuant to subpoena, petitioner appeared on August 10, 1949, before a subcommittee of the Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives. Petitioner was then a member and field representative of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Also subpoenaed to appear on that day were Thomas J. Fitzpatrick and Frank Panzino, two officers of the same union. At the outset of the hearings, counsel for the committee announced that the purpose of the investigation was to inquire into "the question of Communist affiliation or association of certain members" of the union and "the advisability of tightening present security requirements in industrial plants working on certain Government contracts."4 All three witnesses were asked questions concerning alleged [75 S.Ct. 671] membership in the Communist Party. All three declined to answer.

Fitzpatrick was the first to be called to testify. He based his refusal to answer on "the First and Fifth Amendments," as well as "the First Amendment to the

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Constitution, supplemented by the Fifth Amendment."5 Immediately following Fitzpatrick's testimony, Panzino was called to the stand. In response to the identical questions put to Fitzpatrick, Panzino specifically adopted as his own the grounds relied upon by Fitzpatrick.6 In addition, at one point in his testimony, Panzino stated that, "I think again, Mr. Chairman, under the Fifth Amendment, that is my own personal belief."7 On the following day, petitioner, unaccompanied by counsel, was called to the stand and was also asked whether he had ever been a member of the Communist Party. Like Panzino before him, he declined to answer, specifically adopting as his own the grounds relied upon by Fitzpatrick.8

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On November 20, 1950, all three witnesses were indicted under § 192 for their refusals to answer.9 The three cases were tried before different judges, each sitting without a jury. Fitzpatrick and Panzino were acquitted. In Fitzpatrick's case, it was held that his references to "the First and Fifth Amendments" and "the First Amendment to the Constitution, supplemented by the Fifth Amendment" constituted an adequate means of invoking the Self-Incrimination Clause of the Fifth Amendment.10 Similarly, in Panzino's case, it was held that his reference to "the Fifth Amendment" was sufficient to plead the privilege.11 In petitioner's case, however, the District Court held [75 S.Ct. 672] that a witness may not incorporate the position of another witness, and rejected petitioner's defense based on the Self-Incrimination Clause.12 Petitioner was accordingly convicted and sentenced to a term of six months in jail and a fine of $500.

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In reversing this conviction, the Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, held that "[n]o formula or specific term or expression is required" in order to plead the privilege, and that a witness may adopt as his own a plea made by a previous witness.13 Thus, the Court of Appeals viewed the principal issue in the case as "whether Fitzpatrick did or did not claim the privilege."14 On this issue, a majority of the Court of Appeals expressed no view. They agreed that a reversal, without more, would be in order if they "were of clear opinion that Fitzpatrick, and therefore Quinn, did claim the privilege." But they were "not of that clear opinion."15 The Court of Appeals therefore ordered a new trial for determination of the issue by the District Court.16 The Court of Appeals also directed the District Court on retrial to determine whether petitioner "was aware of the intention of his inquirer that answers were required despite his objections."17 In that regard, however, it rejected petitioner's contention that a witness cannot be convicted under § 192 for a refusal to answer unless the committee overruled his objections and specifically directed him to answer.18

It is from that decision that this Court granted certiorari.


There can be no doubt as to the power of Congress, by itself or through its committees, to investigate matters and conditions relating to contemplated legislation. This power, deeply rooted in American and English institutions, is indeed coextensive with the power to legislate. Without the power to investigate -- including, of course, the

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authority to compel testimony, either through its own processes19 or through judicial trial20 -- Congress could be seriously handicapped in its efforts to exercise its constitutional function wisely and effectively.21

But the power to investigate, broad as it may be, is also subject to recognized limitations. It cannot be used to inquire into private affairs unrelated to a valid legislative purpose.22 Nor does it extend to an area in which Congress is forbidden to legislate.23 Similarly, the power to investigate must not be confused with any of the powers of law enforcement; those powers are assigned under our Constitution to the Executive and the Judiciary.24 Still further limitations on the power to investigate are found in the specific individual guarantees of the Bill of Rights, such as the Fifth Amendment's privilege against self-incrimination which is in issue here.25

[75 S.Ct. 673] The privilege against self-incrimination is a right that was hard-earned by our forefathers. The reasons for its inclusion in the Constitution -- and the necessities for its preservation -- are to be found in the lessons of history.26 As early as 1650, remembrance of the horror of Star Chamber proceedings a decade before had firmly established the privilege in the common law of England. Transplanted to this country as part of our legal heritage, it soon made its way into various state constitutions, and ultimately, in 1791, into the federal Bill of Rights. The privilege, this Court has stated,

was generally regarded then, as now,

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as a privilege of great value, a protection to the innocent though a shelter to the guilty, and a safeguard against heedless, unfounded, or tyrannical prosecutions....

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