Ullmann v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1955-1956)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

ARGUED: Dec 06, 1955
DECIDED: Mar 26, 1956

Facts of the case


Media for Ullmann v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 06, 1955 in Ullmann v. United States

Earl Warren:

Number 58, Ullmann versus United States of America.

Mr. Boudin.

Leonard B. Boudin:

If the Court please.

We seek here the review of an order of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, affirming the petitioner's conviction for contempt in the Southern District of New York, for refusing to answer second question before a federal grand jury.

Questions as to which he said it properly and undeniably as a constitutional privilege against self incrimination of the questions which were weld by the trial court to be -- by the District Court to be answerable under the Immunity Act of 1954, which I will first describe at length to this Court.

The Immunity Act of 1954, which appears in the appendix, is the first general immunity statute in the history of this country, notwithstanding various observations that appear on the brief.

It is a statute which had its origin in the attempt of certain congressional committee to secure information with respect to communism, and its principle sponsor was Senator McCarran.

It was eventually tasked very hastefully in the closing days of the 83d Congress, and it deals not only with the congressional committee, which was the main purpose of this Bill.

There are also deals that subpoenas came in at the end, congressional committee from grand jury, an ancillary purpose which at this point I will make shortly.

This Bill provide with respect to congressional committee that in the event that the witness had set its privilege before a congressional committee and the Committee by a two-thirds vote or the House involved by a majority vote desires to compel the testimony notwithstanding the privilege, then an application could be made to a District Court for a notice to the Attorney General who can appeal and oppose or support, and the District Court will then decide whether immunity is to be given in the case of the congressional committee witness and that order will be followed.

If the merit is to be given, then the witness will be compelled to testify.

That section or those sections, (a) and (b) of the statute, I mentioned to give you the full statute, they are not before this Court directly.

What is before this Court is Section (c) of the statute which reads in material language as follows.

Whenever in a judgment of a United States Attorney, the testimony of any witness or the production of books, papers or other evident by any witness in any case or proceeding before any grand jury or Court of the United States involving and then referred to -- then there comes a reference to various statutes dealing with national defense, national security in sedition.

In those so-called national security cases which I will use in my discussion here today without conceding the propriety or the applicability of the term, it is provided that where the judgment of the U.S. Attorney is to the effect that the testamentary “is necessary to the public interest, he, upon the approval of the Attorney General shall make application.”

I emphasize the word “application” to the Court “that the witness shall be instructed to testify or produce evidence subject to the provision of this section and upon order of the Court,” and I emphasize the words “upon order.”

“The witness shall not be excused in testifying or to testify and receive what is referred to generally in the statute as an immunity against prosecution, as an immunity against penalties or forfeiture.”

The statute is not clear, of course, as to whether -- and no statute actually has been as to whether it's intended by the term “penalty or forfeiture,” a point that we will discuss later on.

It should be noted, however, in my passing reference with the statute here that while it appears that immunity is given against the use of the testimony in any court, state or federal, following this Court's decision in Adams, which is common upon the House Committee Report.

It is by no means clear, although, this is not the burden of my main argument that the witness cannot be prosecuted in a state court for the crimes which were revealed by his compelled testimony.

I mentioned that because, as I say, it is a point we make, although, not central to our thing.

Now, as to the facts, the petitioner is one of a series of government employee.

He worked 12 years to the United States Government, retiring honorably in 1947.

A group of government employees, particularly those in the Treasury Department, who, for about eight years, had been subject to accusations by one Elizabeth Bentley of being members of the Communist Party and of an espionage reign in the Treasury Department.

As the record shows to this Court, we'll undoubtedly know from general observation, these charges were received great currency.

I received the imprimatur of the Attorney General of the United States, a point later to be discussed by me.

And these witnesses, including the petitioner, have for eight years and here before a congressional committee, grand jury repeatedly, sometimes before the same Committee, sometimes before the same grand jury, sometimes before several committees, and in the particular case, my client was called before the FBI in April 1947, a grand jury in New York in November 1947 and I will discuss the other half after the recess.

Without going into all the gory details, Mr. Chief Justice, I should say that over a period of seven and a half years, the petitioner was called eight times before one inquisitorial body or another.

Subjected to essentially the identical inquiry with some variations for view of the contacts to the inquiry, but all of them were predicated in one way or another on the Bentley charges of espionage in the Treasury Department in the communism.

And although in the early days when things were a little quiet internationally as far as this situation is concerned, the petitioner for example, in his six-hour interrogation by the FBI in April 1947, denied all the charges that Ms. Bentley had made with effect to espionage, Communist Party membership entered with no prosecution that either substantively were under the False Claims Act.