Powell v. McCormack Case Brief

Why is the case important?

After being elected to the House of Representatives (the House), the House denied membership to the Plaintiff-Petitioner, Powell (Plaintiff). Plaintiff now sues for installment as a representative.

Facts of the case

Adam Clayton Powell pecked at his fellow representatives from his unassailable perch in New York’s Harlem. Powell had been embroiled in controversy inside and outside Washington. When Powell failed to heed civil proceedings against him in New York, a judge held him in criminal contempt. His problems were only beginning. He won reelection in 1966 but the House of Representatives voted to exclude him.


Does the House have a textual commitment in the constitution to determine the qualifications of its members?


Yes. Case reversed and remanded.
The Defendants-Respondents, members of Congress including the Speaker of the House John W. McCormack (Defendants), argued that the House has broad powers under Article I, Section: 5 of the Constitution to determine the qualifications of its membership. Plaintiff argued and the Supreme Court of the United States (Supreme Court) agreed, the ratification debates and historical context of the framers limit the qualifications to those set forth in the Constitution.
The Supreme Court also notes that to hold otherwise would nullify the framers’ decision to require two-thirds vote for expulsion.


“The case has not been mooted by Powell’s seating in the 91st Congress, since his claim for back salary remains a viable issue — (a) Powell’s averments as to declaratory relief are sufficient

  • (b) The mootness of Powell’s claim to a seat in the 90th Congress does not affect the viability of his back salary claim with respect to the term for which he was excluded.”
    • Case Brief: 1969
    • Petitioner: Adam Clayton Powell
    • Respondent: John McCormack, Speaker of the House of Representatives
    • Decided by: Warren Court

    Citation: 395 US 486 (1969)
    Argued: Apr 21, 1969
    Decided: Jun 16, 1969