Yates v. United States, No. 2

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtCLARK
PartiesOleta O'Connor YATES, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES of America
Docket NumberNo. 2
Decision Date25 November 1957

355 U.S. 66
78 S.Ct. 128
2 L.Ed.2d 95
Oleta O'Connor YATES, Petitioner,

v.

UNITED STATES of America.

No. 2.
Argued Oct. 22, 1957.
Decided Nov. 25, 1957.

Page 67

Mr. Leo Branton, Jr., Los Angeles, Cal., for petitioner.

Mr. Philip R. Monahan, Washington, D.C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice CLARK delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is one of criminal contempt for refusal to answer questions at trial. Petitioner, admittedly a high executive officer of the Communist Party of California, and 13 codefendants were indicted and convicted of conspiracy to violate the Smith Act, 18 U.S.C.A. § 2385.1 During the trial, peti-

Page 68

tioner refused on June 30, 1952, to answer 11 questions relating to whether persons other than herself were members of the Communist Party. The District Court held petitioner in contempt of court for each refusal to answer, and imposed 11 concurrent sentences of one year each, which were to commence upon the petitioner's release from custody following execution of the five-year sentence imposed in the conspiracy case. This judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals. 9 Cir., 227 F.2d 851. We granted certiorari. 350 U.S. 947, 76 S.Ct. 322, 100 L.Ed. 825. The principal question presented is whether the finding of a separate contempt for each refusal constitutes an improper multiplication of contempts. We hold that it does, and find that only one contempt has been committed.

The circumstances of petitioner's conviction are these. After the Government had rested its case in the Smith Act trial, all but four of the defendants—petitioner and three others—rested their cases. Petitioner took the stand and testified in her own defense. During the afternoon of the first day of her cross-examination, June 26, 1952, she refused to answer four questions about the Communist membership of a nondefendant and of a codefendant who had rested his case.2 In refusing to answer, she stated, '* * * (T)hat is a question which, if I were to answer, could only lead to a situation in which a person could be caused to suffer the loss of his job * * * and perhaps be subjected to further harassment, and * * * I cannot bring myself to contribute to that.' She added, 'However many times I am asked and in however many forms, to identify a person as a communist, I can't bring myself to do it * * *.' The District Court adjudged her guilty of civil contempt for refusing to answer these ques-

Page 69

tions, and committed her to jail until she should purge herself by answering the questions or until further order of the court. She was confined for the remainder of the trial.3

On the third day of petitioner's cross-examination, June 30, 1952, despite instructions from the court to answer, petitioner refused to answer 11 questions which in one way or another called for her to identify nine other persons as Communists. The stated ground for refusal in these instances was petitioner's belief that either the person named or his family could 'be hurt by' such testimony. She expressed a willingness to identify others as Communists—and in one instance did so—if such identification would not hurt them. The judge stated that he expected to treat these 11 refusals as criminal contempt under Rule 42(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, 18 U.S.C.A.4 Adjudication of the contempt was deferred until completion of the principal case.

Page 70

After conviction and imposition of sentences in the conspiracy case, the court, acting under 18 U.S.C. § 401, 18 U.S.C.A. § 401,5 found petitioner guilty of 'eleven separate criminal contempts' for her 11 refusals to answer questions on June 30. No question is raised as to the form or content of the specifications.

The court sentenced petitioner to imprisonment for one year on each of the 11 separate specifications of criminal contempt. The sentences were to run concurrently and were to commence upon her release from custody following execution of the five-year sentence imposed on the conspiracy charge. Upon imposing sentence, the court stated that if petitioner answered the 11 questions then or within 60 days, while he had authority to modify the sentence under Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, he would be inclined to accept her submission to the authority of the court. However, petitioner persisted in her refusal.

The summary contempt power in the federal courts, '* * * although arbitrary in its nature and liable to abuse, is absolutely essential to the protection of the courts in the discharge of their functions. Without it, judicial tribunals would be at the mercy of the disorderly and violent, who respect neither the laws enacted for the vindication of public and private rights, nor the officers

Page 71

charged with the duty of administering them.' Ex parte Terry, 1888, 128 U.S. 289, 313, 9 S.Ct. 77, 83, 32 L.Ed. 405. The Judiciary Act of 1789 contained a section making it explicit that federal courts could 'punish by fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of said courts, all contempts of authority in any cause or hearing before the same * * *.' 1 Stat. 73, 83. After United States District Judge Peck's acquittal in 18316 on charges of high misdemeanors for summarily punishing a member of the bar for contempt in publishing a critical comment on one of his judgments, Congress modified the statute. In the Act of 1831, the contempt power was limited to specific situations such as disobedience to lawful orders. 4 Stat. 487. See Frankfurter and Landis, Power of Congress Over Procedure in Criminal Contempts in 'Inferior' Federal Courts, 37 Harv.L.Rev. 1010, 1023—1038. The present code provision is substantially similar.7 We have no doubt that the refusals in question constituted contempt within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 401(3), 18 U.S.C.A. § 401(3).

This case presents three issues. Petitioner claims that the sentences were imposed to coerce her into answering the questions instead of to punish her, making the contempts civil rather than criminal and the sentences to a prison term after the close of the trial a violation of Fifth Amendment due process. Second, petitioner argues that her several refusals to answer on both June 26 and June 30 constituted but a single contempt which was total and complete on June 26, so that imposition of contempt sentences for the June 30 refusals was in violation of due process. Finally, petitioner contends that her one-year sentences were so severe as to violate due process and constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.

Page 72

I.

While imprisonment cannot be used to coerce evidence after a trial has terminated, Yates v. United States, 9 Cir., 227 F.2d 844; cf. Gompers v. Bucks Stove & Range Co., 1911, 221 U.S. 418, 443, 449, 31 S.Ct. 492, 498, 501, 55 L.Ed. 797, it is unquestioned that imprisonment for a definite term may be imposed to punish the contemnor in vindication of the authority of the court. We do not believe that the sentences under review in this case were imposed for the purpose of coercing answers to the 11 questions. Rather, the record clearly shows that the order was made to 'vindicate the authority of the court' by punishing petitioner's 'defiance' thereof. The sentencing judge did express the hope that petitioner would still 'purge herself to the extent that she bows to the authority of the court' by answering the questions either at the time of the sentencing or within 60 days thereafter. In doing so, however, he acted pursuant to the power of the court under Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure8 rather than under any theory of civil contempt. Indeed, in express negation of the latter idea, he stated that should she answer the questions, '(i)t could have no effect upon this proceeding and need not be accepted as a purge, because of the fact that the time has passed * * * for the administration of justice in this case to be affected by it.'

II.

Petitioner contends that the refusals of June 26 and June 30 constituted no more than a single contempt because the questions asked all related to identification of others as Communists, after she made it clear on June 26 that she would not be an informer. She urges

Page 73

that the single contempt was completed on June 26 since the area of refusal was 'carved out' on that day. From this, petitioner concludes that no contempt was committed on June 30, and that imposition of criminal contempt sentences for refusals of that day to answer violates due process guaranties.

A witness, of course, cannot 'pick and choose' the questions to which an answer will be given. The management of the trial rests with the judge and no party can be permitted to usurp that function. See United States v. Gates, 2 Cir., 176 F.2d 78, 80. However, it is equally clear that the prosecution cannot multiply contempts by repeated questioning on the same subject of inquiry within which a recalcitrant witness already has refused answers. See United States v. Orman, 3 Cir., 207 F.2d 148.

Even though we assume the Government correct in its...

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167 practice notes
  • Mitchell v. Superior Court (People), S.F. 24790
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • January 2, 1987
    ...all as a witness in a criminal proceeding. Persuaded by the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Yates v. United States (1957) 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95, the court concluded that multiple contempt findings for what amounted to a single contempt was in excess of the ......
  • Reliable Enterprises, Inc. v. Superior Court
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • July 24, 1984
    ...court held the refusal of a witness to answer six separate questions constituted but one contempt. (See also Yates v. United States (1957) 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95; Ex parte Stice (1886) 70 Cal. 51, 11 P. 459; Anno., Power to base separate contempt prosecutions or punishments......
  • State v. Meadows, AC 40472
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • October 9, 2018
    ...In reaching that conclusion, however, the court specifically noted that the United States Supreme Court, in Yates v. United States , 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95 (1957), had "recognized three circumstances in which multiple refusals to testify may be punished only as a single act......
  • Rowe v. Superior Court, No. 17718.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • December 9, 2008
    ...guided by jurisprudence developed in the federal and state courts. The seminal case 289 Conn. 664 in this area is Yates v. United States, 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95 (1957). In that case, while testifying in her own defense on June 26, 1952, the petitioner was adjudged guilty of......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
164 cases
  • Mitchell v. Superior Court (People), S.F. 24790
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (California)
    • January 2, 1987
    ...all as a witness in a criminal proceeding. Persuaded by the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Yates v. United States (1957) 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95, the court concluded that multiple contempt findings for what amounted to a single contempt was in excess of the ......
  • Reliable Enterprises, Inc. v. Superior Court
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • July 24, 1984
    ...court held the refusal of a witness to answer six separate questions constituted but one contempt. (See also Yates v. United States (1957) 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95; Ex parte Stice (1886) 70 Cal. 51, 11 P. 459; Anno., Power to base separate contempt prosecutions or punishments......
  • State v. Meadows, AC 40472
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • October 9, 2018
    ...In reaching that conclusion, however, the court specifically noted that the United States Supreme Court, in Yates v. United States , 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95 (1957), had "recognized three circumstances in which multiple refusals to testify may be punished only as a single act......
  • Rowe v. Superior Court, No. 17718.
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Connecticut
    • December 9, 2008
    ...guided by jurisprudence developed in the federal and state courts. The seminal case 289 Conn. 664 in this area is Yates v. United States, 355 U.S. 66, 78 S.Ct. 128, 2 L.Ed.2d 95 (1957). In that case, while testifying in her own defense on June 26, 1952, the petitioner was adjudged guilty of......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
  • SECURITIES FRAUD
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Nbr. 58-3, July 2021
    • July 1, 2021
    ...effort to persuade a party to obey its orders, and only make use of the more drastic criminal sanctions when the disobedience continues.” 355 U.S. 66, 75 (1957); see also United States v. Winter, 70 F.3d 655, 662 (1st Cir. 1995) (stating differences between civil and criminal contempt charg......
  • Supreme Court Behavior and Civil Rights
    • United States
    • Political Research Quarterly Nbr. 13-2, June 1960
    • June 1, 1960
    ...Payne v. Arkansas, 356 U.S.560 (1958); Alcorta v. Texas, 355 U.S. 28 (1957); Moore v. Michigan, 355 U.S. 155 (1957); Yates v. U.S. (1), 355 U.S. 66 (1957); Yates v. U.S. (2), 356 U.S. 363 (1958); Brown v. U.S., 356 U.S. 148 (1958); Green v. U.S. (1), 355 U.S. 184 (1957); Green v. U.S. (2), ......
  • The Study of Judicial Attitudes: the Case of Mr. Justice Douglas
    • United States
    • Political Research Quarterly Nbr. 24-1, March 1971
    • March 1, 1971
    ...641 (1962). Russell v. United States, 369 U.S. 749, 778 (1962). McPhoulv. United States, 364 U.S. 372, 383 (1960). Yates v. United States, 355 U.S. 66, The term value, as used here, means a "... clustering of attitudes which direct[s] behavior on a long-range basis toward some goals in pref......

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