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Context of 'October 12, 1950: Judge Rules against Government in ‘Banshee’ Crash Lawsuit'

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A B-29 bomber similar to the one that crashed in Georgia.A B-29 bomber similar to the one that crashed in Georgia. [Source: Global Security (.org)]A test flight for the Air Force’s Project Banshee, located at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, is set for 8:30 a.m. Banshee is an attempt begun in 1946 to develop and deploy a long-range missile ahead of both the Soviet Union and rival US military branches. The airplane used in the test flight crashes less than an hour into its flight, killing 9 of the 13 aboard.
Maintenance Problems - The plane assigned for the flight is a B-29 Stratofortress, a bomber made famous by its delivery of the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. B-29s are notoriously difficult to fly and maintain: their four wing-mounted engines almost routinely overheat and catch fire, causing engine shutdowns, sudden drops in altitude, and, often, crashes. The engines’ eighteen cylinders lack sufficient airflow to keep them cool, and the overheating often causes the crankcases, made of light but highly flammable magnesium, to burst into flames. Like so many of its brethren, the plane has suffered its share of maintenance issues, and is flying without numerous recommended maintenance and repair tasks being performed. Just five days before, it had been designated “red cross”—grounded and unfit for service. It was allowed to fly through an “exceptional release” signed by the squadron commander.
Crew Difficulties - The flight is moved back to the afternoon after some crew members fail to show up on time, and to allow last-minute repairs to be made. By takeoff, the flight crew is assembled: Captain Ralph Erwin; co-pilot Herbert W. Moore; flight engineer Earl Murrhee; First Lieutenant Lawrence Pence, Jr, the navigator; Sergeant Walter Peny, the left scanner; Sergeant Jack York, the right scanner; Sergeant Melvin Walker, the radio operator; and Sergeant Derwood Irvin, manning the bombsight and autopilot. The crew is joined by civilian engineers assigned to Banshee: Al Palya and Robert Reynolds from RCA, William Brauner and Eugene Mechler from the Franklin Institute, and Richard Cox from the Air Force’s Air Materiel Command. In violation of standard procedure, none of the crew or the civilians are briefed on emergency procedures, though Murrhee will later say that the crew were all familiar with the procedures; he is not so sure about the civilians, though he knows Palya and Reynolds have flown numerous test flights before. In another violation of Air Force regulations, none of the flight crew have worked together before. As author Barry Siegel will note in 2008, “The pilot, copilot, and engineer had never shared the same cockpit before.”
Engine Fire and Crash - Less than an hour into the flight, one engine catches fire and two others lose power, due to a combination of maintenance failures and pilot errors. The civilians have some difficulty getting into their parachutes as Erwin and Moore attempt to regain control of the aircraft. Four of the crew and civilians manage to parachute from the plane, but most remain on board as the airplane spirals into the ground on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp, near Waycross, Georgia. Crew members Moore, Murrhee, and Peny survive, as does a single civilian, Mechler. Four others either jump at too low an altitude or die when their chutes foul the airplane; the other five never manage to leave the plane and die on impact.
Widows File Suit - Several of the civilians’ widows will file suit against the US Air Force, asserting that their husbands died because of Air Force negligence (see June 21, 1949). Their lawsuit will eventually become US v. Reynolds, a landmark Supreme Court case and the underpinning for the government’s claims of state secrets privilege (see March 9, 1953). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 3, 14-17, 33-49]

Entity Tags: Derwood Irvin, Barry Siegel, US Department of the Air Force, Walter Peny, William Brauner, Air Materiel Command, Richard Cox, Ralph Erwin, Robert Reynolds, Al Palya, Radio Corporation of America, Eugene Mechler, Earl Murrhee, Franklin Institute, Project Banshee, Melvin Walker, Lawrence Pence, Jr, Herbert W. Moore, Jr, Jack York

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Phyllis Brauner and Elizabeth Palya, who both lost their husbands in the “Project Banshee” B-29 crash (see October 6, 1948), file a civil action lawsuit against the US government in regards to the crash. The lawsuit claims that the US Air Force, in the person of the pilot and military crew members of the B-29, caused the deaths of their civilian husbands by “the negligence and wrongful acts and omissions of the officers and employees” of the US. The widows’ lawyer, Charles Biddle, asks the government for $300,000 per family. A third widow, Patricia Reynolds, will join the lawsuit in September 1949. One of the biggest issues surrounding the case is the lawsuit’s request that Biddle and his lawyers be given access to the official accident reports, which the government will claim cannot be revealed because they may contain classified information (see October 18, 1948 and August 7-8, 1950). Biddle’s promise that no one else will see the reports makes no impression on the government’s lawyers. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 100-101]

Entity Tags: Elizabeth Palya, Charles Biddle, Patricia Reynolds, Phyllis Brauner, US Department of the Air Force, Project Banshee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A federal judge orders the Air Force to turn over copies of its classified accident reports about a B-29 crash (see October 6, 1948) as part of a lawsuit filed by three of the widows of crew members killed in the crash (see June 21, 1949). Claiming that the reports may contain classified information about a secret missile development project, Project Banshee, the Air Force not only refuses to turn over the accident reports to the widows’ lawyer, it refuses to allow even the attorney general to view the documents (see August 7-8, 1950). The lawyer for the widows, Charles Biddle, will continue to press for the release of the accident reports. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 120-123]

Entity Tags: Charles Biddle, Project Banshee, US Department of the Air Force

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Federal judge William H. Kirkpatrick rules that the US government must turn over the disputed, and supposedly highly classified (see September 14, 1950), accident reports from a 1948 B-29 crash (see October 6, 1948)—not to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit over the crash (see July 26, 1950), but to Kirkpatrick himself. He wishes to review the reports to determine if they contain any information that might threaten national security, and, before turning the documents over to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, will personally remove that information. In mid-October, when the government again refuses to turn over the documents, Kirkpatrick will find in favor of the plaintiffs (see October 12, 1950). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 133-134]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, William H. Kirkpatrick

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Federal judge William H. Kirkpatrick rules in favor of the plaintiffs in a wrongful death lawsuit against the US government (see October 6, 1948, June 21, 1949, and July 26, 1950), after the government refuses to turn over classified accident reports that have a direct bearing on the plaintiffs’ case (see September 21, 1950). Judge Kirkpatrick orders the government to pay the plaintiffs, three widows who lost their husbands in a 1948 plane crash, a total of $225,000. The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Charles Biddle, expects the government to balk at paying out the money, and to instead continue to challenge the court’s attempt to compel it to turn over the accident reports (see October 19, 1951). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 134-139]

Entity Tags: Charles Biddle, William H. Kirkpatrick

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The government, represented by a team of Justice Department lawyers, appeals the recent ruling against it in the ‘Banshee’ B-29 plane crash lawsuit (see June 21, 1949). In the Third US Circuit Appeals Court, the government argues that the lower court had no business demanding that the Air Force turn over classified accident reports about the crash, because the reports may contain information that would potentially compromise national security (see October 12-18, 1948 and September 14, 1950). The government had twice defied court orders to produce the documents, and as a result had lost the lawsuit (see October 12, 1950). The Justice Department’s arguments come down to the assertion that the judiciary has no constitutional right to compel the executive branch to turn over documents it considers privileged. In 2008, author Barry Siegel will write, “For the first time in the B-29 litigation, the government directly argued that the judiciary could not review [the government’s] claim of privilege.” The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Charles Biddle, counters that the executive branch has no such sweeping claim of privilege, and that a judge should be allowed to review documents in dispute to determine both their bearing on a case and the possibility that releasing those documents could jeopardize national security (see September 21, 1950). Three weeks later, the appeals court will rule unanimously against the government (see December 11, 1951). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 149-153]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Charles Biddle, Barry Siegel

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A three-judge federal appeals court unanimously rejects the government’s claim of unfettered executive privilege and secrecy in regards to classified documents (see October 19, 1951). In an opinion written by Judge Albert Maris, the court finds that the government’s claim that the judiciary can never compel the executive branch to turn over classified documents to be without legal merit. The plaintiffs in the case, three widows who lost their husbands in the crash of a B-29 bomber carrying classified materials (see June 21, 1949), had a compelling need for the documents in question, the downed B-29 accident reports, to further their case, Maris writes (see October 12, 1950).
No Legal Basis for Claim of Privilege - Maris goes further than the parameters of the single lawsuit, writing: “[W]e regard the recognition of such a sweeping privilege… as contrary to a sound public policy. The present cases themselves indicate the breadth of the claim of immunity from disclosure which one government department head has already made. It is but a small step to assert a privilege against any disclosure of records merely because they might prove embarrassing to government officials. Indeed, it requires no great flight of imagination to realize that if the government’s contentions in these cases were affirmed, the privilege against disclosure might gradually be enlarged… until as is the case in some nations today, it embraced the whole range of government activities.… We need to recall in this connection the words of [Revolution-era jurist] Edward Livingston: ‘No nation ever yet found any inconvenience from too close an inspection into the conduct of its officers, but many have been brought to ruin, and reduced to slavery, by suffering gradual imposition and abuses, which were imperceptible, only because the means of publicity had not been secured.’” He also quotes Revolutionary War figure Patrick Henry, who said, “[T]o cover with the veil of secrecy the common routine of business is an abomination in the eyes of every intelligent man and every friend to his country.”
Rejecting Claim of 'State Secrets' - Maris is even less respectful of the government’s claim of a “state secrets” privilege. He notes that the government did not make that claim until well into the lawsuit proceedings (see October 19, 1951), indicating that it was a “fallback” argument used after the original government arguments had failed. Maris is also troubled, as author Barry Siegel later writes, in the government’s “assertion of unilateral executive power, free from judicial review, to decide what qualified as secret.” The lower court judge’s ruling that he alone should be given the documents for review adequately protected the government’s security interests, Maris writes: “[But] the government contends that it is within the sole province of the secretary of the Air Force to determine whether any privileged material is contained in the documents and that his determination of this question must be accepted by the district court without any independent consideration.… We cannot accede to this proposition. On the contrary, we are satisfied that a claim of privilege against disclosing evidence… involves a justiciable question, traditionally within the competence of the courts.… To hold that the head of an executive department of the government in a [law]suit to which the United States is a party may conclusively determine the government’s claim of privilege is to abdicate the judicial function to infringe the independent province of the judiciary as laid down by the Constitution.”
Fundamental Principle of Checks and Balances - Maris continues: “The government of the United States is one of checks and balances. One of the principal checks is furnished by the independent judiciary which the Constitution established. Neither the executive nor the legislative branch of the government may constitutionally encroach upon the field which the Constitution has reserved for the judiciary.… Nor is there any danger to the public interest in submitting the question of privilege to the decision of the courts. The judges of the United States are public officers whose responsibilities under the Constitution is just as great as that of the heads of the executive departments.”
Government Appeal - The Justice Department will appeal the ruling to the US Supreme Court (see March 1952 and March 9, 1953). [Siegel, 2008, pp. 153-156]

Entity Tags: Albert Maris, US Department of Justice, Barry Siegel, US Supreme Court

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Justice Department appeals the ruling of the US Appeals Court in the B-29 “Banshee” case (see December 11, 1951). The appellate judges found that the executive branch of government could not unilaterally refuse to hand over classified documents requested during the course of a trial, and justify its decision merely by its own say-so (see October 12, 1950). Solicitor General Philip Perlman argues that the appellate ruling erroneously interprets the law “so as to permit encroachments by the judiciary on an area committed by the Constitution to executive discretion.” The claim of “state secrets,” “executive privilege,” and, ultimately, “national security” must trump judicial concerns, Perlman argues, and he goes on to say that the judiciary should not be allowed to “substitute its judgment for the judgment of the executive.” The case will be labeled United States of America v. Patricia Reynolds, Phyllis Brauner, and Elizabeth Palya, and will usually be shortened to the more colloquial US v. Reynolds.
The Vinson Court - In 2008, author Barry Siegel, in his book Claim of Privilege, will note that the recent ascension of Fred Vinson as the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice does not bode well for the plaintiffs in the case. President Truman placed Vinson, whom Siegel calls Truman’s “poker and drinking buddy,” as Chief Justice to try to achieve consensus between the two contentious blocs of justices on the Court. Siegel notes that Vinson is widely considered an intellectual and legal lightweight, with a tendency to take the side of the government on issues in which he lacks a full understanding. Siegel will write that in many instances, Vinson functions “as part of the executive branch.”
'Dennis' Case Preview of Court's Tendency to Favor Executive Branch - Vinson had written the opinion in a 1951 ruling, Dennis et al v. United States, where the Court had upheld a lower court ruling that twelve acknowledged American Communists were sent to jail under the Smith Act—not for breaking the law, but for “teaching and advocating,” in the words of the original indictment. Siegel will call that ruling “the nadir of the Vinson Court.” According to Siegel, the Dennis ruling showed the Court’s predisposition to give the government, and particularly the executive branch, plenty of leeway in its findings in subsequent cases such as Reynolds. [Siegel, 2008, pp. 157-162]

Entity Tags: Fred Vinson, Elizabeth Palya, US Supreme Court, US Department of Justice, Barry Siegel, Harry S. Truman, Phyllis Brauner, Philip Perlman, Patricia Reynolds

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Lawyers make their opening arguments before the Supreme Court in the case of US v Reynolds, the lawsuit that finds the government had no overarching right to unilaterally refuse to deliver classified documents in the course of a wrongful death lawsuit against the government (see December 11, 1951). The government has appealed the appellate court ruling to the Supreme Court (see March 1952). Because four of the nine justices had voted not to hear the case—in essence to let the appellate court ruling stand—the defense is cautiously optimistic about the Court’s decision.
Judiciary Has No Right to Interfere with Powers of the Executive, Government Argues - Acting Solicitor General Robert Stern tells the Court that the appellate judges’ decision, written by Judge Albert Maris, “is an unwarranted interference with the powers of the executive,” and that the decision forced the government to choose “whether to disclose public documents contrary to the public interest [or] to suffer the public treasury to be penalized” (a reference to the decision to award the plaintiffs monetary damages—see October 12, 1950). The judiciary “lack[s] power to compel disclosure by means of a direct demand [as well as] by the indirect method of an order against the United States, resulting in judgment when compliance is not forthcoming.”
Executive Has No Right to Unilaterally Withhold Information, Defense Counters - Stern’s arguments are countered by those of the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Charles Biddle, who writes, “We could rest our case with confidence on the clear opinion of Judge Maris,” but continues by arguing that if the government asserts a claim of executive privilege on the basis of national security, it must make the documents available to the Court for adjudication, or at least provide enough information for the Court to judge whether the documents present in fact a threat to national security if disclosed. This is particularly true, Biddle argues, “where there is no showing that the documents in question contain any military secret” (Biddle is unaware that the documents’ classification status had been reduced two years before—see September 14, 1950). “The basic question here is whether those in charge of the various departments of the government may refuse to produce documents properly demanded… in a case where the government is a party (see June 21, 1949), simply because the officials themselves think it would be better to keep them secret, and this without the Courts having any power to question the propriety of such decision.… In other words, say the officials, we will tell you only what we think it is in the public interest that you should know. And furthermore, we may withhold information not only about military or diplomatic secrets, but we may also suppress documents which concern merely the operation of the particular department if we believe it would be best, for purposes of efficiency or morale, that no one outside of the department, not even the Court, should see them.”
No Basis for Claims of Military Secrets - Biddle argues that because of responses he has received to his demands over the course of this lawsuit, he is relatively sure there are no military secrets contained within them. “[T]he proof is to the contrary,” he says, and goes on to say that had the Air Force disclosed from the outset that the plane crash, the fatal accident that sparked the original lawsuit (see October 6, 1948), was probably caused by pilot error and not by random chance, the plaintiffs may have never needed to ask for the disclosure of the documents in question, the accident reports on the crash (see October 18, 1948). “The secretary [of the Air Force]‘s formal claim of privilege said that the plane at the time was engaged in a secret mission and that it carried confidential equipment,” Biddle says, “but nowhere was it asserted that either had anything to do with the accident. The whole purpose of the demand by the respondents was for the purpose of finding out what caused the accident.… They were not in the least interested in the secret mission or equipment.” [Siegel, 2008, pp. 165-170]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, Albert Maris, Robert Stern, US Department of the Air Force, Charles Biddle

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

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