Powell v. McCormack

PETITIONER: Adam Clayton Powell
RESPONDENT: John McCormack, Speaker of the House of Representatives
LOCATION: Congress

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1969)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 395 US 486 (1969)
ARGUED: Apr 21, 1969
DECIDED: Jun 16, 1969

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.


May the House of Representatives exclude a duly elected member if the member has satisfied the standing requirements of age, citizenship and residence as articulated in Article I Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution?

Media for Powell v. McCormack

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 21, 1969 in Powell v. McCormack

Arthur Kinoy:

Were wholly unsupported by the facts themselves.

They’ve talked of willful contemptuous a conduct in the part of the petitioner towards the Courts of the State New York, and on April 11th of this year, the appellate division of this Court’s to State of New York, revoked, resented, and vacated the judgment of criminal contempt against the petitioner.

They talked of alleged improper use of committee funds and yet, Mr. Hayes, himself the chairman of the committee which had previously investigate said on the Floor of the House, in supporting the admission of the petitioner without any qualifications this time, he pointed out that when these supposed facts were submitted to a tribunal which has the power to investigate a grand jury, the grand jury refused to return any bill of indictment whatsoever.

This illustrates the profundity of the founder’s insistence that this rock of protection be written.

Now, the respondents have a great difficulty with this constitutional of analysis.

They have difficulty with the writings and thinking of Professor Warren, who after lifetime scholarly expertise came to the conclusions which we have here advanced.

Did they suggest that Professor Warren through his lifetime of experience did not have the same time to examine the sources of history which turns this to the respondents that had.

We don't have to pause long on this.

This Court has time and time again relied only in Bond against Floyd on the expertise of Professor Warren.

Think of difficulty with Madison and Hamilton and they suggest that the Federalist Papers are after all only special pleading.

Well, we do not have to pause long with that contention.

This Court has characterized the Federalist Papers time and time again as the most authoritative evidence of the intention of the founders.

They have difficulty with the constitutional opinion of their own Select Committee.

We point out in our brief that there own Select Committee said, the House had no constitutional power to exclude Mr. Powell.

They have difficulty with the opinion of the most dominant constitutional authority in the House, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

They have difficulty with this Court's decision in Bond against Floyd which proceeds on the assumption that the statements of Madison and Hamilton meant what they said.

So, they suggested this Court that it's a position and thinking in Bond against Floyd is mere dictum.

Having these difficulties, the respondents reached back into history for precedent to explain that Madison and Hamilton did not mean what they said.

That the founders in fact intended to allow some sort of inherent power in the legislature to exclude otherwise duly qualified representatives of the people.

Upon the legislatures own notion of unfixed but what is extraordinary is that there entire constitutional edifice rests upon a precedent that they grasped from history, what is the precedent?

The Wilkes case, the exclusion of John Wilkes by the British Parliament and Blackstone's rationale in justification for the parliament reaction.

They say that since American lawyers were schooled in Blackstone as we all know.

The founders must have adopted his justification for the action of the British parliament in excluding Wilkes.

But I suggest to the Court this is fantastic that it turns history upon its head that the Wilkes case was the very lesson, Madison said in Philadelphia was what we must prevent in the New Republic in this Republic.

And Blackstone's justification for the action of the British Parliament upon which their entire constitutional case rests.

They do not inform the Court, was first of all not included in this first commentaries he was very embarrass on the Floor of parliament when he appeared as a special plea therefore the majesty's government to justify the Wilkes exclusion when his own commentaries were read against him.

So, he revise his opinion to justify the Wilkes exclusion and he was then attacked on both sides of the Atlantic by the leading spokesman for the colonial courts as evidencing the precise theory of legislative tyranny which the colonist were rising against.

Then, we have set forth with the court's convenience in our reply brief.

The famous “Junius” papers which repudiate that Blackstone position but most important of all, the Blackstone position was repudiated by the parliament itself when it expunge the Wilkes exclusion resolution, five years before the Philadelphia convention when it expunge it as what, as subversive of the rights of the electorate of the British Isles.

And finally, the Blackstone opinion is not even considered English law today.