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Context of 'March 9, 1953: Supreme Court Creates ‘State Secrets’ Privilege in Ruling'

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The US Supreme Court rules that the federal government cannot seize the nation’s steel mills. In April, President Truman, fearing a nationwide strike that could impact the US war effort in Korea, ordered the seizure of all US steel mills; the lawsuit that resulted, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, quickly made its way to the Supreme Court.
Rejection of 'Inherent Powers' Claim - During oral arguments, the justices grilled Acting Attorney General Philip Perlman, demanding to know what statutes he had relied on for his arguments and asserting that the president had limitations both on his emergency wartime powers and on his ability to claim that he is the “sole judge” of the existence of, and remedies for, an emergency. The justices are not convinced by the government’s arguments for the president’s “inherent powers.” They are also troubled by repeated refusals of the government to provide facts and documentary backing for its legal arguments, and its reliance instead on claims of “national security.” The attorney for the steel industry, John Davis, quoted Thomas Jefferson in his argument: “In questions of power, let no more be said of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.” Justice William O. Douglas noted that if the government’s claims were valid, there would be “no more need for Congress.”
Court Rejects Argument - In a 6-3 vote, the Court rules that the president has no inherent power to seize the steel mills. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black states: “In the framework of our Constitution, the president’s power to see that the laws are faithfully executed refutes the idea that he is to be a lawmaker.… The founders of this nation entrusted the lawmaking power to the Congress alone in both good and bad times.… This is a job for the nation’s lawmakers.” In a concurring opinion, Justice Robert Jackson writes, “No penance would ever expiate the sin against free government of holding that a president can escape control of executive powers by law through assuming his military role.” In his dissent, Chief Justice Fred Vinson (see March 1952) argues that “the gravity of the emergency” overrides the Constitutional arguments accepted by the majority of the Court. “Those who suggest that this is a case involving extraordinary powers should be mindful that these are extraordinary times. A world not yet recovered from the devastation of World War II has been forced to face the threat of another and more terrifying global conflict.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 123; Siegel, 2008, pp. 163-164] In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will observe that the Youngstown decision “turned out to be only a pause in the movement toward an increasingly authoritarian presidency.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 19]

Entity Tags: William O. Douglas, John Davis, Hugo Black, Charlie Savage, Fred Vinson, Harry S. Truman, Philip Perlman, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In their regular Saturday conference, the nine Supreme Court justices discuss the issues and arguments surrounding US v Reynolds (see October 21, 1952). According to the notes from the discussion, Chief Justice Fred Vinson, a strong advocate for expansive executive powers (see March 1952), says the case “boils down to Executive Branch determine privilege.” Other notes by Justice William O. Douglas suggest that Vinson isn’t convinced that the US must “be forced to pay for exercising its privilege” (see October 12, 1950). A straw vote taken at the end of the discussion shows five justices in favor of the government’s position to unilaterally withhold classified documents—overturning the appellate court decision (see December 11, 1951), and four in favor of allowing the decision to stand. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 171]

Entity Tags: Fred Vinson, US Supreme Court, William O. Douglas

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Chief Justice Fred Vinson.Chief Justice Fred Vinson. [Source: Kansas State Historical Society]The US Supreme Court upholds the power of the federal government’s executive branch to withhold documents from a civil suit on the basis of executive privilege and national security (see October 25, 1952). The case, US v Reynolds, overturns an appellate court decision that found against the government (see December 11, 1951). Originally split 5-4 on the decision, the Court goes to 6-3 when Justice William O. Douglas joins the majority. The three dissenters, Justices Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, and Robert Jackson, refuse to write a dissenting opinion, instead adopting the decision of the appellate court as their dissent.
'State Secrets' a Valid Reason for Keeping Documents out of Judicial, Public Eye - Chief Justice Fred Vinson writes the majority opinion. Vinson refuses to grant the executive branch the near-unlimited power to withhold documents from judicial review, as the government’s arguments before the court implied (see October 21, 1952), but instead finds what he calls a “narrower ground for defense” in the Tort Claims Act, which compels the production of documents before a court only if they are designated “not privileged.” The government’s claim of privilege in the Reynolds case was valid, Vinson writes. But the ruling goes farther; Vinson upholds the claim of “state secrets” as a reason for withholding documents from judicial review or public scrutiny. In 2008, author Barry Siegel will write: “In truth, only now was the Supreme Court formally recognizing the privilege, giving the government the precedent it sought, a precedent binding on all courts throughout the nation. Most important, the Court was also—for the first time—spelling out how the privilege should be applied.” Siegel will call the Reynolds ruling “an effort to weigh competing legitimate interests,” but the ruling does not allow judges to see the documents in order to make a decision about their applicability in a court case: “By instructing judges not to insist upon examining documents if the government can satisfy that ‘a reasonable danger’ to national security exists, Vinson was asking jurists to fly blind.” Siegel will mark the decision as “an act of faith. We must believe the government,” he will write, “when it claims [the accident] would reveal state secrets. We must trust that the government is telling the truth.”
Time of Heightened Tensions Drives Need for Secrecy - Vinson goes on to note, “[W]e cannot escape judicial notice that this is a time of vigorous preparation for the national defense.” Locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and fighting a war in Korea, the US is, Vinson writes, in a time of crisis, and one where military secrets must be kept and even encouraged. [U. S. v. Reynolds, 3/9/1953; Siegel, 2008, pp. 171-176]
Future Ramifications - Reflecting on the decision in 2008, Siegel will write that while the case will not become as well known as many other Court decisions, it will wield significant influence. The ruling “formally recognized and established the framework for the government’s ‘state secrets’ privilege—a privilege that for decades had enabled federal agencies to conceal conduct, withhold documents, and block civil litigation, all in the name of national secrecy.… By encouraging judicial deference when the government claimed national security secrets, Reynolds had empowered the Executive Branch in myriad ways. Among other things, it had provided a fundamental legal argument for much of the Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Enemy combatants such as Yaser Esam Hamdi (see December 2001) and Jose Padilla (see June 10, 2002), for many months confined without access to lawyers, had felt the breath of Reynolds. So had the accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui when federal prosecutors defied a court order allowing him access to other accused terrorists (see March 22, 2005). So had the Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar (see September 26, 2002), like dozens of others the subject of a CIA extraordinary rendition to a secret foreign prison (see After September 11, 2001). So had hundreds of detainees at the US Navy Base at Guantanamo Bay, held without charges or judicial review (see September 27, 2001). So had millions of American citizens, when President Bush, without judicial knowledge or approval, authorized domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (see Early 2002). US v. Reynolds made all this possible. The bedrock of national security law, it had provided a way for the Executive Branch to formalize an unprecedented power and immunity, to pull a veil of secrecy over its actions.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. ix-x]

Entity Tags: William O. Douglas, Zacarias Moussaoui, US Supreme Court, Yaser Esam Hamdi, Robert Jackson, Jose Padilla, Felix Frankfurter, Bush administration (43), Fred Vinson, Barry Siegel, George W. Bush, Hugo Black, Maher Arar

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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