Wood v. Georgia

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation370 U.S. 375,82 S.Ct. 1364,8 L.Ed.2d 569
Docket NumberNo. 369,369
PartiesJames I. WOOD, Petitioner, v. GEORGIA
Decision Date25 June 1962

370 U.S. 375
82 S.Ct. 1364
8 L.Ed.2d 569
James I. WOOD, Petitioner,



No. 369.
Argued March 29, 1962.
Decided June 25, 1962.

Milton Kramer, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

E. Freeman Leverett, Elberton, Ga., for respondent.

Page 376

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 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 in the midst of a local political campaign and the judge, in order to publicize the investigation, requested reporters for all local news media

Page 379

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 good will 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 K.K.K.

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, 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

Page 382

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 only as a private citizen but also as an announced candidate for public office in the general election to be held the following November, and in which election the petitioner would be running against the contestant who prevailed in the democratic primary; that he believed the language employed in the charge was of such a nature that it tended to create or emphasize issues likely to have a drastic impact upon the outcome of the primary; that his purpose in issuing the statements was simply to inform the public of what he sincerely believed to be the other side of the issue created by the charge; and that the statements were not intended to be contemptuous of the court or to hinder the investigation. The petitioner also asserted that he adopted the same method of distributing his views to the general public as did the court in disseminating the grand jury charge. No witnesses were presented at the hearing and no evidence was introduced to show that the publications resulted in any actual interference or obstruction of the court or the work of the grand jury. The gravamen of the contempt citation, and of the State's case against the petitioner, was that the mere publishing of the news release and defense statement constituted a contempt of court, and in and of itself was a clear and present danger to the administration of justice.

The trial court, without making any findings and without giving any reasons, adjudged petitioner guilty on all

Page 383

counts and imposed concurrent sentences of 20 days and separate fines of $200 on each. On writ of error to the Court of Appeals the convictions on counts one and three were affirmed and the conviction on count two, based on the open letter to the grand jury, was reversed. Wood v. Georgia, 103 Ga.App. 305, 119 S.E.2d 261. After the Georgia Supreme Court, without opinion, declined to review the convictions on the first and third counts, the petitioner sought a writ of certiorari to this Court which we granted. 368 U.S. 894, 82 S.Ct. 178, 7 L.Ed.2d 92.


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