356 U.S. 148 (1958), 43, Brown v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 43
Citation:356 U.S. 148, 78 S.Ct. 622, 2 L.Ed.2d 589
Party Name:Brown v. United States
Case Date:March 31, 1958
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 148

356 U.S. 148 (1958)

78 S.Ct. 622, 2 L.Ed.2d 589



United States

No. 43

United States Supreme Court

March 31, 1958

Argued April 4, 1957

Restored to the calendar for reargument June 10, 1957

Reargued October 22, 1957




In the Government's civil suit in a Federal District Court for petitioner's denaturalization on the ground that she had fraudulently procured citizenship by swearing falsely that she was not, and had not been, a member of or affiliated with the Communist Party, she voluntarily took the stand and testified at length in her own defense. Thereafter, during cross-examination, she refused, on grounds of self-incrimination, to answer questions which were relevant to her testimony on direct examination. The District Court ruled that she had waived her privilege by testifying in her own defense and ordered her to answer, but she persisted in her refusal to do so. For this, she was summarily adjudged guilty of criminal contempt and sentenced to imprisonment.

Held: the conviction is sustained. Pp. 149-157.

(a) There can be no doubt that stubborn disobedience of the duty to answer relevant inquiries in a judicial proceeding brings into force the power of the federal courts to punish for contempt. Ex parte Hudgings, 249 U.S. 378, and In re Michael, 326 U.S. 224, distinguished. Pp. 153-154.

(b) By taking the stand and testifying in her own behalf, petitioner waived the right to invoke on cross-examination her privilege against self-incrimination regarding matters made relevant by her direct examination. Pp. 154-156.

(c) The record does not fairly support petitioner's claim that the District Court found a waiver simply in the act of taking the stand and misled her as to the actual legal question involved. Pp. 156-157.

234 F.2d 140, affirmed.

Page 149

FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a proceeding of summary disposition, under Rule 42(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure,1 of a finding of criminal contempt [78 S.Ct. 624] committed in the actual presence of the court, the power to punish which is given by 18 U.S.C. § 401.2 The proceeding grew out of a suit for denaturalization brought against petitioner pursuant to § 340(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, 66 Stat. 260, as amended, 8 U.S.C. (Supp. IV) § 1451(a). The complaint in the denaturalization suit charged that petitioner had fraudulently procured citizenship in 1946 by falsely swearing that she was attached to the principles of the Constitution, and that she was not and had not been for ten years preceding opposed to organized government or a member of or affiliated with the Communist Party or any organization teaching opposition to organized government, whereas, in fact, petitioner had been, from 1933 to 1937, a member of the Communist Party and the Young Communist League, both organizations advocating the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force and violence.

Page 150

At the trial in the denaturalization proceeding, petitioner was called as an adverse witness by the Government under Rule 43(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Petitioner admitted that she had once been a member of the Young Communist League, but denied that she had belonged to the Communist Party in the period before 1946. She refused to answer questions about activities and associations that were unlimited in time or directed to the period after 1946 on the ground that her answers might tend to incriminate her, and the District Court sustained the claim of privilege. At the close of the Government's examination, petitioner's counsel stated that, "I won't cross-examine the witness at this point. I will put her on on direct."3

Thereafter, petitioner took the stand as a witness in her own behalf. She comprehensively reaffirmed the truth of the statements made at the time of her naturalization, and, although she admitted membership in the Young Communist League from about 1930, claimed that she had resigned in 1935, and had not engaged in any Communist activities from 1935 until her naturalization in 1946. Not content to rest there, petitioner went on to testify that she had never taught or advocated the overthrow of the existing government or belonged to any organization that did so advocate, that she believed in fighting for this country and would take up arms in its defense in event of hostilities with Soviet Russia, and that she was attached to the principles of the Constitution and the good order and happiness of the United States.4 This

Page 151

testimony was directed to petitioner's [78 S.Ct. 625] present disposition towards the United States, and was not limited to the period before 1946.

Page 152

On cross-examination, the Government immediately put to petitioner the question, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?" It also asked numerous other questions relating to Communist activities since 1946 that petitioner had successfully refused to answer when first examined. Petitioner again refused to answer, claiming the privilege against self-incrimination. The District Court ruled that, by taking the stand in her own defense, petitioner had abandoned the privilege, and directed her to answer. However, petitioner persisted in her refusal to answer any questions directed towards establishing that she had been a Communist since 1946. For this she was cast in contempt of court and sentenced to imprisonment for six months. The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. 234 F.2d 140. Deeming the record to raise important questions regarding the scope of the privilege against self-incrimination and the power of a federal court to make summary disposition of a charge of criminal contempt, we brought the case here. 352 U.S. 908. Argument was had in the 1956 Term and the case set down for reargument in the present Term. 354 U.S. 907.

The conduct for which petitioner was found guilty of contempt was her sustained disobedience of the court's direction to answer pertinent questions on cross-examination after her claim of the privilege against self-incrimination had been overruled. On the first argument in this Court, petitioner stood on the validity of her claim of privilege as the essential ground for reversal here of the judgment of the Court of Appeals. It was taken for granted by petitioner no less than by the Government that for a party insistently to block relevant inquiry on cross-examination subjects him to punishment for contempt in the exercise of the power vested in the federal courts throughout our history. Act of Sept. 24, 1789,

Page 153

§ 17, 1 Stat. 83; Act of Mar. 2, 1831, 4 Stat. 487-488; R.S. §725; Judicial Code, 1911, § 268, 36 Stat. 1163; 18 U.S.C. § 401.

On reargument, both sides, responsive to a suggestion from the bench, discussed the relevance of Ex parte Hudgings, 249 U.S. 378, to the present situation. That case, followed in In re Michael, 326 U.S. 224, held that, for perjury alone, a witness may [78 S.Ct. 626] not be summarily punished for contempt. The essence of the holding in those cases was that perjury is a specifically defined offense, subject to prosecution under all the safeguards of the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, and that the truth or falsity of a witness' testimony ought not be left to a judge's unaided determination in the midst of trial. Perjury is one thing; testimonial recalcitrance another. He who offers himself as a witness is not freed from the duty to testify. The court (except insofar as it is constitutionally limited), not a voluntary witness, defines the testimonial duty. See Judge Learned Hand in United States v. Appel, 211 F. 495.

Such has been the unquestioned law in the federal judicial system time out of mind. It has been acted upon in the lower courts and this Court. Whatever differences the potentially drastic power of courts to punish for contempt may have evoked, a doubt has never been uttered that stubborn disobedience of the duty to answer relevant inquiries in a judicial proceeding brings into force the power of the federal courts to punish for contempt. Trial courts no doubt must be on guard against confusing offenses to their sensibilities with obstruction to the administration of justice. It is no less important for this Court to use self-restraint in the exercise of its ultimate power to find that a trial court has gone beyond the area in which it can properly punish for contempt. We are not justified in sliding from mere disagreement with the way in which a trial court has dealt with a particular

Page 154

matter, such as petitioner's conduct in the present case, into a condemnation of the court's action as an abuse of discretion.

We thus reach the constitutional issue.

Petitioner contends that, by taking the stand and testifying in her own behalf, she did not forego the right to invoke on cross-examination the privilege against self-incrimination regarding matters made relevant by her direct examination. She relies on decisions holding that witnesses in civil proceedings and before congressional committees do not waive the privilege by denials and partial disclosures, but only by testimony that itself incriminates. More particularly, petitioner's reliance is on Arndstein v. McCarthy, 254 U.S. 71; 262 U.S. 355; 266 U.S. 34. In that litigation, a witness called before special commissioners in bankruptcy proceedings filed schedules of his assets and liabilities and made certain disclosures in respect to his financial condition, but refused to answer numerous questions on the ground that to do so might incriminate him. This Court held that the witness' refusal did not constitute contempt; that, since the evidence furnished "did not amount to an admission of guilt or furnish clear...

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