370 U.S. 375 (1962), 369, Wood v. Georgia

Docket Nº:No. 369
Citation:370 U.S. 375, 82 S.Ct. 1364, 8 L.Ed.2d 569
Party Name:Wood v. Georgia
Case Date:June 25, 1962
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 375

370 U.S. 375 (1962)

82 S.Ct. 1364, 8 L.Ed.2d 569




No. 369

United States Supreme Court

June 25, 1962

Argued March 29, 1962



In the midst of a local political campaign, a County Judge, in the presence of representatives of news media assembled at the Judge's request, issued a charge to a grand jury giving it special instructions to investigate rumors and accusations of alleged bloc voting by Negroes and the rumored use of money by political candidates to obtain their votes. The next day, while the grand jury was in session, petitioner, an elected Sheriff who was a candidate for reelection, issued from his office in the same building a press statement criticizing the Judge's action and urging citizens to take notice when their judges threatened political intimidation and persecution of voters under the guise of law enforcement. Petitioner was cited in the County Court for contempt, on the ground that his statement was calculated to be contemptuous of the Court and to obstruct the grand jury in its investigation and that it constituted a "clear, present and imminent danger" to the administration of justice. Petitioner issued a further statement repeating substantially his earlier charges and asserting that his defense would be that he had spoken the truth. The contempt citation was then amended by the addition of another count based on this latter statement and a charge that it constituted a clear and present danger to the grand jury investigation and to the disposition of the contempt citation against him. Without making any findings or giving any reasons for its conclusion that his conduct actually obstructed the grand jury or contempt proceedings, the trial court adjudged petitioner guilty of contempt and sentenced him to fine and imprisonment.

Held: The record does not support a finding that petitioner's statements presented a clear and present danger to the administration of justice; and his conviction violated his right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Pp. 376-395.

103 Ga.App. 305, 119 S.E.2d 261, reversed.

Page 376

WARREN, J., lead opinion

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

We granted certiorari to consider the scope of the constitutional protection to be enjoyed by persons when the publication of their thoughts and opinions is alleged to be in conflict with the fair administration of justice in state courts. The petitioner, an elected sheriff in Bibb County, Georgia, contends that the Georgia courts, in holding him in contempt of court for expressing his personal ideas on a matter that was presently before the grand jury for its consideration, have abridged his liberty of free speech as protected by the First Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

On June 6, 1960, a judge of the Bibb Superior Court issued a charge to a regularly impaneled grand jury, giving it special instructions to conduct an investigation into a political situation which had allegedly arisen in the county. The jury was advised that there appeared to be "an inane and inexplicable pattern of Negro bloc voting" in Bibb County, and that "rumors and accusations" had been made which indicated candidates for public office had paid large sums of money [82 S.Ct. 1366] in an effort to gain favor and to obtain the Negro vote. The charge explained that certain Negro leaders, after having met and endorsed a candidate, had switched their support to an opposing candidate who put up a large sum of money, and that this "create[d] an unhealthy, dangerous, and unlawful situation [which] tend[ed] to corrupt public office holders and some candidates for public office." The charge continued by indicating the violations of law which would be involved should the grand jury find the charges

Page 377

to be founded in truth.1 In addition, certain questions were posed to the jury which it was to investigate in inquiring into the charges of election law violations.2

Page 378

The instructions were given [82 S.Ct. 1367] in the midst of a local political campaign, and the judge, in order to publicize the investigation, requested reporters for all local news media

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to be present in the courtroom when the charge was delivered.

The following day, while the grand jury was in session investigating the matters set forth in the instructions delivered by the court, the petitioner issued to the local press a written statement in which he criticized the judges' action and in which he urged the citizenry to take notice when their highest judicial officers threatened political intimidation and persecution of voters in the county under the guise of law enforcement. This news release, which was published and disseminated to the general public, stated:

Whatever the Judges' intention, the action . . . ordering [the grand jury] . . . to investigate "negro block voting" will be considered one of the most deplorable examples of race agitation to come out of Middle Georgia in recent years.

At a time when all thinking people want to preserve the goodwill and cooperation between the races in Bibb County, this action appears either as a crude attempt at judicial intimidation of negro voters and leaders or, at best, as agitation for a "negro vote" issue in local politics.

No one would question the duty of a Grand Jury to investigate any and all election law violations. However, simple justice would demand that the Judge not single out the negro people for particular investigation. . . .

* * * *

Negro people will find little difference in principle between attempted intimidation of their people by judicial summons and inquiry and attempted intimidation by physical demonstration such as used by the KKK.

Page 380

It is hoped that the present Grand Jury will not let its high office be a party to any political attempt to intimidate the negro people in this community.

It seems incredible that all three of our Superior Court Judges, who themselves hold high political office, are so politically nieve [naive] as to actually believe that the negro voters in Bibb County sell their votes in any fashion, either to candidates for office or to some negro leaders.

If anyone in the community [should] be free of racial prejudice, it should be our Judges. It is shocking to find a Judge charging a Grand Jury in the style and language of a race baiting candidate for political office.

* * * *

However politically popular the judges action may be at this time, they are employing a practice far more dangerous to free elections than anything they want investigated.

James I. Wood

The following day, the petitioner delivered to the bailiff of the court, stationed at the entrance to the grand jury room, "An Open Letter to the Bibb County Grand Jury," which was made available to the grand jury at petitioner's request. This letter, implying that the court's charge was false, asserted that, in the petitioner's opinion, the Bibb County Democratic Executive Committee was the organization responsible for corruption in the purchasing of votes, [82 S.Ct. 1368] and that the grand jury would be well advised also to investigate that organization.

A month later, on July 7, 1960, the petitioner was cited in two counts of contempt based on the above statements. The citation charged that the language used by the petitioner was designed and calculated to be contemptuous of the court, to ridicule the investigation ordered by the charge, and "to hamper, hinder, interfere with and

Page 381

obstruct" the grand jury in its investigation. It also alleged that the news release was issued from the Bibb County Sheriff's Office, located in the courthouse in which the grand jury had been charged and where it was deliberating, and that the language imputed lack of judicial integrity to the three judges of the court responsible for the charge. An amendment to the citation alleged that the statements

in and of [themselves] created . . . a clear, present and imminent danger to the investigation being conducted . . . and . . . to the proper administration of justice in Bibb Superior Court.

The next day, the petitioner issued a further press release in which he repeated substantially the charges he had made in the release on June 7, and in which he asserted that his defense to the contempt citation would be that he had spoken the truth. The contempt citation was thereupon amended by including a third count based on this latter statement. The third count contained the same allegations as the other counts and, in addition, charged that the petitioner's action presented a clear and present danger to the handling of the contempt citation against the petitioner.

At a hearing before the trial judge,3 certain facts were stipulated: that the petitioner's statements were made while the grand jury was in session investigating matters suggested in the charge by the court; that the grand jury had before it the voting tabulations and other documents, including endorsements by certain political groups relating to primaries and elections in which the petitioner participated as a candidate and as an active supporter for other candidates; and that the members of the grand jury and the judges themselves had seen and read the

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press releases issued by the petitioner. In addition, it was stipulated that the petitioner's sworn response be admitted as evidence. The allegations in this response, which must be considered as true in the absence of contrary evidence and in the absence of findings of fact by the trial judge, included the verification that the statements were made by petitioner in his capacity as a private citizen, and not as sheriff of the county; that petitioner was directly and personally interested in the outcome of the current primary election not...

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