369 U.S. 749 (1962), 8, Russell v. United States

Docket Nº:[82 S.Ct. 1040] No. 8
Citation:369 U.S. 749, 82 S.Ct. 1038, 8 L.Ed.2d 240
Party Name:Russell v. United States
Case Date:May 21, 1962
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 749

369 U.S. 749 (1962)

82 S.Ct. 1038, 8 L.Ed.2d 240



United States

[82 S.Ct. 1040]

No. 8

United States Supreme Court

May 21, 1962

Argued December 7, 1961




The petitioners in these six cases were convicted of violating 2 U.S.C. § 192, which makes it a misdemeanor for any person summoned to testify before a committee of Congress to refuse to answer "any question pertinent to the question under inquiry." In each case, the indictment returned by the grand jury stated that the questions to which answers were refused "were pertinent to the question then under inquiry" by the subcommittee; but it failed to identify the subject under subcommittee inquiry when the witness was interrogated. In each case, a motion was filed to quash the indictment before trial for failure to state the subject under inquiry; but in each case, the motion was denied, and the issue thus raised was preserved and properly presented in this Court.

Held: the grand jury indictment required by 2 U.S.C. §194 as a prerequisite to a prosecution for a violation of § 192 must state the question which was under inquiry at the time of the defendant's alleged default or refusal to answer, as found by the grand jury, and the judgment affirming the conviction of each of the petitioners is reversed. Pp. 751-772.

(a) The Congress which originally enacted, in 1857, the law which was a predecessor of 2 U.S.C. §192 was expressly aware that pertinency to the subject under inquiry was the basic preliminary question which the federal courts would have to decide in determining whether a violation of the statute had been alleged or proved. Pp. 756-758.

Page 750

(b) Many decisions of this Court arising under 2 U.S.C. § 192 have recognized the crucial importance of determining the issue of pertinency, and the obvious first step in determining whether the questions asked were pertinent to the subject under inquiry is to ascertain what that subject was. Pp. 758-760.

(c) While convictions are no longer reversed because of minor and technical deficiencies which did not prejudice the accused, the substantial safeguards to those charged with serious crimes cannot be eradicated under the guise of technical departures from the rules. Pp. 760-763.

(d) Omission from the indictments here involved of statements of the subject under inquiry deprived the defendants of one of the significant protections which the guaranty of a grand jury indictment was intended to confer -- i.e., they failed adequately to apprise the defendants of what they must be prepared to meet. Pp. 763-768.

(e) These indictments were also insufficient to serve the corollary purpose of enabling the courts to decide whether the facts alleged were sufficient in law to support convictions. Pp. 768-769.

(f) The deficiencies in these indictments could not have been cured by bills of particulars, because under 2 U.S.C. § 194, only a grand jury may determine whether a person should be held to answer in a criminal trial for refusing to give testimony pertinent to a question under congressional committee inquiry, and the grand jury itself must necessarily determine what the question under inquiry was. Pp. 769-771.

108 U.S. App. D. C. 140, 280 F.2d 688; 108 U.S.App.D.C. 153, 280 F.2d 701; 108 U.S.App.D.C. 226, 281 F.2d 59; 108 U.S.App.D.C. 160, 280 F.2d 708; 108 U.S.App.D.C. 167, 280 F.2d 715; 108 U.S.App.D.C. 130, 280 F.2d 678, reversed.

Page 751

STEWART, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

In these six cases, we review judgments of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia,1 which affirmed convictions obtained in the District Court under 2 U.S.C. § 192.2

Page 752

Each of the petitioners was convicted for refusing to answer certain questions when summoned before a congressional subcommittee.3 The cases were separately briefed and argued here, and many issues [82 S.Ct. 1041] were presented. We decide each case upon a single ground common to all, and we therefore reach no other questions.

In each case, the indictment returned by the grand jury failed to identify the subject under congressional subcommittee inquiry at the time the witness was interrogated. The indictments were practically identical in this respect, stating only that the questions to which answers were refused "were pertinent to the question then under inquiry" by the subcommittee.4 In each case, a motion

Page 753

was filed to quash the indictment before trial upon the ground that the indictment failed to state the subject under investigation at the time of the subcommittee's interrogation of the defendant.5 In each case, the motion was denied. In each case, the issue thus raised was preserved on appeal, in the petition for writ of certiorari, and in brief and argument here.

Congress has expressly provided that no one can be prosecuted under 2 U.S.C. § 192 except upon indictment by a grand jury.6 This Court has never decided whether

Page 754

the indictment must identify the subject which was under inquiry at the time of the defendant's alleged default or refusal to answer.7 For the reasons that follow, we hold

Page 755

that the indictment must contain [82 S.Ct. 1042] such an averment, and we accordingly reverse the judgments before us.

In enacting the criminal statute under which these petitioners were convicted, Congress invoked the aid of the federal judicial system in protecting itself against contumacious conduct. Watkins v. United States, 354 U.S. 178, 207. The obvious consequence, as the Court has repeatedly emphasized, was to confer upon the federal courts the duty to accord a person prosecuted for this statutory offense every safeguard which the law accords in all other federal criminal cases. Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263, 296-297; Watkins v. United States, supra, at 208; Sacher v. United States, 356 U.S. 576, 577; Flaxer v. United States, 358 U.S. 147, 151; Deutch v. United States, 367 U.S. 456, 471.

Recognizing this elementary concept, the Sinclair case established several propositions which provide a relevant starting point here. First, there can be criminality under the statute only if the question which the witness refused to answer pertained to a subject then under investigation by the congressional body which summoned him. "[A] witness rightfully may refuse to answer where . . . the questions asked are not pertinent to the matter under inquiry." Sinclair v. United States, supra, at 292. Secondly, because the defendant is presumed to be innocent, it is "incumbent upon the United States to plead and show that the question [he refused to answer] pertained to some matter under investigation." Id. at 296-297. Finally, Sinclair held that the question of pertinency

Page 756

is one [82 S.Ct. 1043] for determination by the court as a matter of law. Id. at 298.

In that case, the Court had before it an indictment which set out in specific and lengthy detail the subject under investigation by the Senate Committee which had summoned Sinclair. The Court was thereby enabled to make an enlightened and precise determination that the question he had refused to answer was pertinent to that subject. Id. at 285-289, 296-298.

That the making of such a determination would be a vital function of the federal judiciary in a prosecution brought under 2 U.S.C. § 192 was clearly foreseen by the Congress which originally enacted the law in 1857.8 Congress not only provided that a person could be prosecuted only upon an indictment by a grand jury, but, as the record of the legislative debates shows, Congress was expressly aware that pertinency to the subject under inquiry was the basic preliminary question which the federal courts were going to have to decide in determining

Page 757

whether a criminal offense had been alleged or proved. The principal spokesman for the bill, Senator Bayard, repeatedly made this very point:

The bill provides for punishing a witness who shall refuse to answer any question "pertinent" to the matter of inquiry under consideration before the House or its committee. If he refuses to answer an irrelevant question, he is not subject to the penalties of the bill. The question must be pertinent to the subject matter, and that will have to be decided by the courts of justice on the indictment. That power is not given to Congress; it is given appropriately to the judiciary.

Cong. Globe, 34th Cong., 3d Sess. 439 (1857).

* * * *

This law does not propose to give to this miscellaneous political body the power of punishment, but one of its greatest recommendations is that it transfers that power of punishment to a court of justice after judicial inquiry. All that is to be done in the case of a refusal to testify is to certify the fact to the district attorney, who is to lay it before the grand jury, and if the party is indicted, he is bound to answer according to the terms of the law, as any other person would for an offense against the laws of the land. . . . I am aware that legislative bodies have transcended their powers -- that, under the influence of passion and political excitement, they have very often invaded the rights of individuals, and may have invaded the rights of coordinate branches of the Government; but if our institutions are to last, there can be no greater safeguard than will result [82 S.Ct. 1044] from transferring that which now stands on an indefinite power (the punishment as well as the offense resting

Page 758

in the breast of either House) from Congress to the courts of justice. When a case of this kind comes before a court, will not the first inquiry be, have Congress jurisdiction of the subject matter? -- has...

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