Watkins v. United States

PETITIONER: John Watkins
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Congress

DOCKET NO.: 261
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1957-1958)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

CITATION: 354 US 178 (1957)
ARGUED: Mar 07, 1957
DECIDED: Jun 17, 1957

Facts of the case

In 1954, John Watkins, a labor organizer, was called upon to testify in hearings conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Watkins agreed to describe his alleged connections with the Communist Party and to identify current members of the Party. Watkins refused to give information concerning individuals who had left the Communist Party. Watkins argued that such questions were beyond the authority of the Committee.

Question

Did the activities of the Un-American Activities Committee constitute an unconstitutional exercise of congressional power?

Media for Watkins v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 07, 1957 (Part 1) in Watkins v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 07, 1957 (Part 2) in Watkins v. United States

J. Lee Rankin:

As we -- from Justice Frankfurter, I'd like to make it very clear the Government's position about that.

The question was whether or not this was possibly a device or means to avoid further inquiry to the petitioner, and I want to make it clear that the Government does not claim anything of that kind.

It could accomplish that purpose just as well if it was so intended but we do not so charge him and there is nothing in the record to give such an implication.

Felix Frankfurter:

But my question had an implication, went a little beyond that, whether the kind of relevancies that you sketched or outlined before lunch.

Whether the inquiries which you indicated would be relevant to what had preceded.

Whether he wasn't fore coming in dealing with questions addressed to him, so far as his conduct and his relation and his knowledge was concerned sort of inquiry with these other people?

J. Lee Rankin:

Yes.

Felix Frankfurter:

And I take it your answer that he didn't show any withholding (Voice Overlap) with himself.

J. Lee Rankin:

His only withholding was apparently with regard to the people that he said had left the party that he knew and knew something about whether or not they were or were not in before.

Felix Frankfurter:

And -- and there was -- and you agree that the record doesn't disclose any -- what shall I say, any indication or explicit endeavor on the part of the Chairman and he was the fellow who was asking question, was he?

J. Lee Rankin:

Yes, sir.

Felix Frankfurter:

That -- that elucidating why the question, which you refuse to answer, might bail on issues that had been dealt with and as to which he did give testimony?

J. Lee Rankin:

I must correct that the questions were asked by the Chairman and various members of the Committee --

Felix Frankfurter:

All right.

All of them.

J. Lee Rankin:

And then --

Felix Frankfurter:

But there was no point at to which -- perhaps I can put it more simply.

There was no indication when he said, “No, I don't want to talk about that.”

But the Chairman then said, well, may I tell you, politely said incur this evening, maybe employed even before congressional committee to say, may I tell you why I'm asking this for the point of this question or let me enlighten you.

There was nothing of that sort, was there?

J. Lee Rankin:

No, except the --

Felix Frankfurter:

I mean the question was put and denial made and that's that.

J. Lee Rankin:

Yes.

There was the one statement by the Chairman, when he direct in -- directed in to answer.

In which he said he thought he had information that would be helpful to the Committee and that he should give it.

And he then said, he direct him to answer but it doesn't go as broad I think as your question.

And it seems to me the only area that the Committee could have said that he was not frank was if he was falsifying about whether he did continue dues to these -- to the Communist Party and through to these very persons, and whether he collected dues from these very persons.

And whether he was in fact a Communist when they said he was.

Felix Frankfurter:

And the question that I put to Mr. Rauh, what can you open the door to the extent of saying, I will disclose those whom I know to be members of the Communist Party.

The Chairman didn't say, “Well, we do not have to give you of course our information, but there's reason why we ask that in the light of what you already tested.”