Quinn v. United States, 8

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtWARREN
Citation75 S.Ct. 668,349 U.S. 155,99 L.Ed. 964
PartiesThomas QUINN, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America. Re
Docket NumberNo. 8,8
Decision Date23 May 1955

Messrs. David Scribner, Frank J. Donner, New York City, for petitioners.

Mr. Robert W. Ginnane, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Chief Justice WARREN delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner was convicted for contempt of Congress under 2 U.S.C. § 192, 2 U.S.C.A. § 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 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 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 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 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 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.

In reversing this conviction, the Court of Appeals, sitting en banc, held that 'No 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 co-extensive with the power to legislate. Without the power to investigate—including of course the authority to compel testimony, either through its own processes19 or through judicial trial20Congress 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

The privilege against self-incrimination is a right that was hardearned 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 procedings 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 as a privilege of great value, a proection to the innocent though a shelter to the guilty, and a safeguard against heedless, unfounded, or tyrannical prosecutions.'27 Coequally with our other constitutional guarantees, the Self-Incrimination Clause 'must be accorded liberal construction in favor of the right it was intended to secure.'28 Such liberal construction is particularly warranted in a prosecution of a witness for a refusal to answer, since the respect normally accorded the privilege is then buttressed by the presumption of innocence accorded a defendant in a criminal trial. To apply the privilege narrowly or begrudgingly to treat it as an historical relic, at most merely to be tolerated is to ignore its development and purpose.

In the instant case petitioner was convicted for refusing to answer the committee's question as to his alleged membership in the Communist Party. Clearly an answer to the question might have tended to incriminate him.29 As a consequence, petitioner was entitled to claim the privilege. The principal issue here is whether or not he did.

It is agreed by all that a claim of the privilege does not require any special combination of words.30 Plainly a witness need not have the skill of a lawyer to invoke the protection of the Self-Incrimination Clause. If an ob- jection 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.

Here petitioner, by adopting the grounds relied upon by Fitzpatrick, based his refusal to answer on 'the first and fifth Amendments' and 'the first amendment to the Constitution, supplemented by the fifth amendment.' The Government concedes—as we think it must—that a witness may invoke the privilege by stating 'I refuse to testify on the ground of the Fifth Amendment.' Surely, in popular parlance and even in legal literature, the term 'Fifth Amendment' in the context of our time is commonly regarded as being synonymous with the privilege against self-incrimination. The Government argues, however, that the references to the Fifth Amendment in the instant case were inadequate to invoke the privilege because Fitzpatrick's statements are more reasonably understood as invoking rights under the First Amendment. We find the Government's argument untenable. The mere fact that Fitzpatrick and petitioner also relied on the First Amendment does not preclude their reliance on the Fifth Amendment as well.31 If a witness urges two constitutional objections to a committee's line of questioning, he is not bound at his peril to choose between them. By pressing both objections, he does not lose a privilege which would have been valid if he had only relied on one.

The Government, moreover, apparently concedes that petitioner intended to invoke the privilege. In its brief the Government points out 'the probability that petitioner's ambiguous references to the Fifth Amend- ment * * * were phrased deliberately in such vague terms so as to enable petitioner * * * to obtain the benefit of the privilege without incurring the popular opprobrium which often attaches to its exercise.'32 But...

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