Samuels v. Mackell

PETITIONER: George Samuels, Abraham C. Taylor, Herman Benjamin Ferguson, Arthur Harris, Mandola McPherson, Max Stanford, Merle Stewart, Hampton Woodward Rookard, Ursula Virginia West, Milton Ellis
RESPONDENT: Thomas J. Mackell, Louis J. Lefkowitz
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1970-1971)
LOWER COURT: Federal district court

CITATION: 401 US 66 (1971)
ARGUED: Apr 01, 1969
REARGUED: Apr 29, 1970 / Nov 16, 1970
DECIDED: Feb 23, 1971

Eleanor Jackson Piel - for the appellants
Frederick J. Ludwig - for the appellees
Maria L. Marcus - for the appellees
Victor Rabinowitz - for the appellants

Facts of the case

George Samuels and several other defendants were indicted in state court on criminal anarchy charges, in violation of New York state law. The defendants filed for an injunction in federal court to prevent continuation of their case. They argued that the New York laws violated due process, First Amendment freedoms, and equal protection. The district court found the laws constitutional and refused to grant the injunction. The U.S. Supreme Court heard this case on direct appeal


Are the New York criminal anarchy laws unconstitutionally vague?

Media for Samuels v. Mackell

Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - April 29, 1970 in Samuels v. Mackell
Audio Transcription for Oral Reargument - November 16, 1970 in Samuels v. Mackell

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 01, 1969 in Samuels v. Mackell

Earl Warren:

Number 580, George Samuels and others against Mackell, District Attorney and others.

Fred Fernandez, appellant against Thomas J. Mackell, District Attorney, Number 813.

Victor Rabinowitz:

May it please the Court.

Earl Warren:

Mr. Rabinowitz.

Victor Rabinowitz:

This is in appeal from a judgment of the three-judge statutory court sitting in the Southern District of New York denying two plaintiffs an injunction and declaratory judgment against the District Attorney of Queens County.

The plaintiffs sought an injunction and declaratory judgment to enjoin their prosecution under the New York criminal anarchy statute.

The facts, the relevant facts I think can be very briefly stated.

On June 21, 1967, the 11 plaintiffs here were indicted together with a number of others, on charges of advocacy of criminal anarchy conspiracy to commit the crime of advocacy of criminal anarchy.

Two of them were also charged with permitting there premises to be used for an assemblage of anarchists.

The indictment was considerably broader than this in that it had 48 counts of which only five come -- five are before the Court on this application.

The other 43 counts all related to specific crimes, most of them to the possession of guns.

Contrary to the law of the State of New York, I think there's also a charge one of the counts relates to a conspiracy to commit the crime of arson.

This case, the indictment here invoked the New York criminal anarchy statute of 1902, which was first applied in the period after the First World War of the early 20's in the Gitlow case.

And was not applied again until 1964 when it was applied by New York State in the case of People against Epton.

This resurrection of a moribund statute in the Epton case and the mass indictment in this case which followed 36 days after, the Court of Appeals decision in Epton poses a threat, we think, to the radical political activity of our time and raises memories of the 20's and the prosecutions of those errors which clearly seem to us to be inconsistent with modern constitutional doctrine.

The plaintiffs brought this action and rely largely on the general authority of this Court in cases such as Dombrowski and cases which have followed it, and so far as declaratory judgment is concerned, in Zwickler against Koota.

Hugo L. Black:

Do you think the narrowing construction that the Court gave the statute to Epton meets the constitutional problem?

Victor Rabinowitz:

No, sir.

We argue, of course we'll come to that in a moment, it's a major part of this case.

The -- we argue that the statute both on its face and as construed in Gitlow is both vague and overbroad and it is clearly unconstitutional, and I don't think there's any argument about that.

The Court of Appeals of New York held as this Court has held on a number of occasions that the Gitlow case is no longer law.

In Keyishian in this Court discussed this very statute at some length and held that it was clearly unconstitutional.

However, the defendant argues that the New York Court of Appeals in Epton, by means of narrowing construction corrected the defect.

And this view was accepted by the three-judge court.

The New York Court of Appeals in its opinion narrowing the construction said that, “Well, we think now that the legislative intent of 1902 was to write a constitutional statute.”

And of course the constitutional doctrine has changed a good deal since that time, and so we will now say that the legislature in 1902 intended to conform to existing constitutional standards.

And the three-judge court echoed this somewhat ever epigrammatically saying, “If the 1902 legislature had known it could not have all it wanted, it would have wanted all it could have.”

And on the basis of this, it held the construction, the narrowing construction of the Gitlow statute constitutional.

Now, there are two primary questions raised on this face of the case.

The first is whether that narrowing construction in Epton is binding on the plaintiffs in this case at all.