New Jersey v. Portash

LOCATION: Massachusetts General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 77-1489
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: State appellate court

CITATION: 440 US 450 (1979)
ARGUED: Dec 05, 1978
DECIDED: Mar 20, 1979

Edwin H. Stier - for petitioner
Michael E. Wilbert - for respondent

Facts of the case


Media for New Jersey v. Portash

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 05, 1978 in New Jersey v. Portash

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 20, 1979 in New Jersey v. Portash

Warren E. Burger:

The judgments and opinion of the Court in New Jersey against Portash, Number 1489 will be will be announced by Mr. Justice Stewart.

Potter Stewart:

This case is here by reason of the grant of certiorari to the review of the judgment of the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division.

The case involves the scope of the privilege against compulsory self-incrimination grounded in the Fifth Amendment and made binding against the States by the Fourteenth.

The precise question is whether despite this constitutional privilege, a prosecutor may use a person’s immunized grand jury testimony to impeach that person’s credibility as a testifying defendant in a criminal trial.

The New Jersey Appellate Court held that the grand jury testimony could not be use for that purpose and reversed the criminal conviction of the respondent for a new trial.

We affirmed the judgment of the New Jersey Court.

Testimony given in response to a grant of a legislative immunity is the essence of coerced testimony.

The witness is told to talk or face the Government’s coercive sanctions, notably a conviction for contempt.

The information given and response to a grant of immunity may well be more reliable than information beaten from a helpless defendant in a station house, but it is no less compelled. And the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments provide a privilege against compel self-incrimination not merely against unreliable self-incrimination.

We thus still here with the constitutional privilege against compulsory self-incrimination in its most pristine form.

The courts are not free therefore in a case like this to engage in a process of balancing the competitive interests involved.

Any such balancing was performed finally and forever or at least until the constitution is amended by our forefathers.

For these reasons more fully elaborated in the written opinion filed this morning with the clerk, the judgment of the New Jersey Court is affirmed.

Mr. Justice Brennan and Mr. Justice Powell while both joining the opinion of the Court have each written concurring opinions which respectively have been joined by Mr. Justice Marshall and Mr. Justice Rehnquist.

Mr. Justice Blackmun on the other hand has filed a dissenting opinion which the Chief Justice has joined.

This dissenting opinion I should add does not reach the substantive constitutional question decided today.

Warren E. Burger:

Thank you, Mr. Justice Stewart.