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Historic Cases Summaries

The following summaries are from historic cases heard at the U.S. Courthouse in the District of Columbia.


On the night of June 12, 1972, five men were arrested at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building after attempting to bug the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee, located within the building. As a result of the investigation into the burglary, it became apparent that high-level officials within the White House were involved in the planning, execution, and cover-up of this event. Over the course of the next two years, media and grand jury investigations revealed that President Richard M. Nixon was instrumental in ordering the cover-up. As a result, Nixon became the first President to resign from office. Before any criminal proceedings were initiated against the former President, President Gerald Ford pardoned him for any criminal offenses, including Watergate, that he may have committed while in office.

The Nixon Tapes
In re Grand Jury Subpoena Duces Tecum Issued to Richard M. Nixon, 360 F.Supp 1 (1973)
When Senate Committee hearings revealed that President Richard M. Nixon secretly taped all conversations in the Oval Office, the Grand Jury empaneled to investigate the Watergate incident subpoenaed (ordered the President to turn over under penalty of law) relevant tapes in order to investigate Executive responsibility. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, via Judge John R. Sirica, rejected President Nixon's claim that he had an inherent "executive privilege" that protected the secrecy of White House conversations.

Nixon asserted a claim, ultimately rejected by the Court, that the President, unlike his cabinet members, was not subject to the normal judicial process because of the doctrine of separation of powers and that the impeachment process was available to remedy Executive excesses. The Court, in essence, ruled that the President, although worthy of deference due to his powerful position, was not above the law.

Executive Privilege
Nixon v. Sirica, 487 F.2d 700 (1973)
Unsatisfied with Judge Sirica's decision, President Nixon's lawyers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. This Court also ruled against the President—although it acknowledged that the President could, under certain circumstances, successfully assert a claim of "executive privilege," it held that this privilege was not absolute. The Court provided a list of factors that may constitute instances where a claim of "executive privilege" could legitimately be raised, including "military, diplomatic, and national security matters."

While recognizing that great deference should be provided to the President when he determines that a matter is worthy of "executive privilege," the Court ruled that it was the prerogative of the judiciary, not the President, to determine when such a claim was appropriate. The Court was careful to note, though, that every precaution must be taken to ensure that no sensitive information would be released in the process.

Executive Privilege and the Fifth Amendment
United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974)
Facing criminal prosecution for his role in the Watergate cover-up, President Nixon's former Attorney General, John Mitchell, requested that the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia subpoena the tapes belonging to the President in order to assist with Mitchell's defense. The Supreme Court, like the Court of Appeals, acknowledged that, under certain circumstances, a President may successfully assert a claim of "executive privilege." Nevertheless, it held that the right of the President to assert this claim must be balanced against the Fifth Amendment right of a criminal defendant, John Mitchell, to obtain compulsory evidence in his defense.

The Court attempted to balance these competing rights by ruling that the President must turn over the relevant tapes to the presiding District Court judge, who would review them in camera (in chambers) and determine if they had any relevance to Mitchell's case. Any relevant information could be used by Mitchell; any non-relevant or sensitive information would remain confidential. Both the lawyers for President Nixon and the Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, would be present while the tapes were reviewed. Within two weeks of this decision, President Nixon resigned.


Military Commissions
Ex Parte Quirin, 47 F. Supp. 431 (1942)
During World War II, a German submarine landed Richard Quirin and five other individuals on the Eastern Shore of the United States. They possessed explosives and were instructed to commit acts of sabotage. All six individuals were discovered and taken into custody by U.S. forces. President Roosevelt, via a presidential proclamation of July 2, 1942, stated that "subjects, citizens, or residents of nations at war with the United States" are not entitled to the protection of the U.S. Courts. For this reason, the U.S. District Court denied Quirin's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus is a legal command that allows detained individuals to challenge the legality of their confinement. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this ruling in a case also titled Ex Parte Quirin, 317 US 1 (1942).

"Axis Sally"
Gillars v. United States, 182 F.2d 962 (1950)
Mildred Elizabeth Gillars (also known as "Axis Sally"), an American citizen living in Germany during World War II, participated in radio programs that were meant to demoralize American troops. The German government broadcast these programs on frequencies that were heard by American forces. After the War, the U.S. Army took her into custody on the charge of treason for engaging in "psychological warfare." After a trial before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, she was found guilty. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sustained her conviction, rejecting the argument that she had voluntarily relinquished U.S. citizenship and was returned to the United States against her will.

To prevent charges for treason from being levied for purely political reasons, as they frequently were in Great Britain before the American Revolution, the framers decided to narrowly define this offense within the text of the Constitution itself, the only crime to be specifically defined in the document. Article III, Section 3 states, in relevant part, that: "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court." Mildred Gillars's case is one of relatively few instances in U.S. history where a prosecution for treason was a success.

The President at War
Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 103 F. Supp. 569 (1952)
President Harry S Truman nationalized American steel mills in order to ward off an impending strike by the United Steelworkers of America union. He claimed that he had an inherent power as President to engage in this action because of his responsibility under the Constitution "to see that the laws be faithfully executed" and because functioning steel mills were needed to support American forces engaged in the Korean War (1950-1953). The owners of the steel mills challenged the President's authority to unilaterally seize the mills without authorization from Congress. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the nationalization of an industry was a legislative action which only the Congress, and not the President, could authorize. It stayed its decision, however, until the case could be heard by the Court of Appeals.

Sawyer v. United States Steel Co. (Steel Seizures Case), 197 F.2d 582 (1952)
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the decision of the District Court. Additionally, the Court of Appeals stated that, even if Congress were to sanction the President's actions, under the Eminent Domain Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the owners of the steel mills must receive just compensation for the government's taking of their property. The Court of Appeals stayed its judgment pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company v. Sawyer, 343 US 579 (1952), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeals' ruling that the President could not take over an industry without the consent of Congress.


The Pentagon Papers
United States v. Washington Post, 446 F.2d 1327 (1971)
During the Vietnam War, Defense Department employee Daniel Ellsberg leaked top secret materials concerning past government activities in Vietnam to The Washington Post and The New York Times newspapers. The Nixon Administration sought an injunction to permanently prevent the publication of these materials, arguing that making this information public would have an adverse impact on national security. Both the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit rejected the government's request. Both Courts reviewed the materials in camera (in chambers) and found that they were no longer sensitive to national security. While the Court left open the possibility that publication of sensitive measures, (e.g., troop movements during time of war), could be enjoined it held that, in this particular case, the right of the press to be free from censure outweighed the government's security concerns.

Arthur Miller
United States v. Miller, 259 F.2d 187 (1958)
Arthur Miller, the famed author and playwright, was convicted of refusing to answer lawful questions while testifying before House Un-American Activities Committee concerning his interactions with Communists and their sympathizers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed his conviction. The Court noted that, while Miller did not originally answer certain questions put to him, he asked for, and was granted, permission to answer them at a later date. Since the Committee adjourned without pursuing Miller's answers, the Court of Appeals ruled that he could not be found criminally responsible for failing to answer the Committee's questions.

Arthur Miller's trial was part of a larger anti-Communist phenomenon occurring in America during the 1940s and 1950s. During these years, there was a general fear in America of Communist infiltration of Hollywood, labor unions, and other American institutions. The House Un-American Activities Committee was responsible for investigating such alleged infiltrations. This Committee gained prominence under the leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy (D-WI) during 1953-1954.

The May Day Protestors
Sullivan v. Murphy, 478 F.2d 938 (1973)
In May 1971, thousands of protestors arrived in D.C. and attempted to disrupt the work of the federal government. In an attempt to prevent this occurrence, the Metropolitan Police Department suspended its normal procedures and authorized the widespread arrest of any person thought to be engaged in the protest, regardless of individualized suspicion or probable cause. Moreover, certain "fast track" procedures were employed for the booking, processing, and prosecution of these individuals. As a result, thousands of persons were arrested by the police as they sought to break up the protest. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that such actions were unconstitutional. It ordered the convictions of any protestors whom the police did not have probable cause to believe were engaging in disorderly conduct to be overturned and their arrest records expunged.


School Desegregation
Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 (1954)
Until 1954, government-funded schools in the District of Columbia were segregated by race. In the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of segregation. Although judges on both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia thought that this practice was unconstitutional, they were bound to uphold the Supreme Court's precedent.

In the case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its decision in Plessy, and prohibited segregation in public schools. It based its decision on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which applies only to the states and not the federal government.

As a result, the argument was made that schools within the District of Columbia could remain segregated because they were administered by the federal government. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected this reasoning in Bolling v. Sharpe (1954), holding that the federal government's endorsement of segregation in Washington, D.C. schools was so arbitrary and unjustifiable that it violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Judges of the U.S. District Court and Court of U.S. Appeals for the District of Columbia quickly followed this ruling.

Equal Pay for Women
Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, Inc. 567 F. 2d 429 (1976)
Northwest Airlines paid different wages to male and female flight attendants, stating that the pay reflected differences in the types of jobs that flight attendants of each gender performed. Northwest even had different titles for persons of each gender. Females were referred to as "stewardesses" and males were referred to as "pursers." Several female employees filed a class action lawsuit challenging the legality of this practice. A class action lawsuit is a lawsuit in which an individual, or small group of individuals, agrees to sue on behalf of a larger group who are "so situated" (facing a similar legal situation). They argued that paying different wages for "substantially similar" work violated both the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Equal Pay Act prohibits discrimination in pay on the basis of gender if members of both genders perform the same type of work. The Civil Rights Act prohibits private businesses engaged in interstate commerce from discriminating on the basis of race, national origin, sex, and religion. The U.S. Court of Appeals, affirming a decision of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, ruled that flight attendants of both genders performed "substantially similar" work; thus, Northwest's practice violated both of these laws.

Women on Navy Ships
Owens v. Brown, 455 F. Supp. 291 (1978)
A federal law, 10 U.S.C.A. SS1066, prohibited women in the U.S. Navy from being assigned to duties on seagoing vessels, including both combat and non-combat posts. Several women sailors filed a class action lawsuit claiming that this blanket prohibition was so arbitrary that it violated their Due Process rights under the Fifth Amendment. The U.S. Navy countered that the logic of certain naval regulations constituted a "political question" that was beyond the power of the Courts to review.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, rejecting the Navy's claims, held that a law completely preventing women from serving on any naval vessel, without more specific justification, was an unconstitutional violation of the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause. While the Court stated that proper training would remove most of the traditional justification for prohibiting women from serving on vessels, it noted that, in certain limited situations, the prohibition may be justified, e.g., on transport vessels or in combat posts.


The Assassination of President Lincoln
U.S. v. Surratt (1865)
Mary Surratt owned a tavern/boarding house in southern Maryland that was frequented by John Wilkes Booth and other individuals implicated in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and other officials in his administration. She was tried before a military tribunal in 1865 for conspiracy to assassinate the President and sentenced to be hanged. At the last minute, her lawyers obtained a writ of habeas corpus from Judge Andrew Wylie who sat on the court now known as the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. A writ of habeas corpus allows individuals to challenge the legality of their confinement in court.

Surratt argued that, as a civilian, she should have been tried before a civilian court, as opposed to a military court. In reaction to court's orders, President Andrew Johnson suspended the writ of habeas corpus. The Constitution permits the writ to be suspended under certain circumstances, e.g., during time of war. However, there is debate over who has the legitimate authority to do so, the Congress or the President. The Court deferred to the actions of the President, and Mary Surratt, along with three other conspirators, was hanged on July 7, 1865.

The Assassination of President Garfield
U.S. v. Guiteau (1882)
Charles Guiteau assassinated President James Garfield in 1882. He tried to assert an insanity defense, arguing that at the time he could not tell right from wrong due to a mental defect. This test of insanity, known as the M'Naghten Test, had been imported from England. The court now known as the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia rejected this argument. After unsuccessfully appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus, Guiteau was hanged.

Due Process Rights
U.S. v. Mallory (1957)
Andrew Mallory was convicted of rape and sentenced to death by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. After his arrest, Mallory was held by police officials for hours before he was brought before a magistrate to be arraigned. During this time, Mallory was subjected to a lie detector test. After many repetitions of the test, he confessed. At no time was he informed of his rights, including his right to remain silent. Mallory's confession was one of the most damaging pieces of evidence at his trial.

Mallory argued that his prolonged holding by police without being promptly taken before a magistrate for arraignment violated his rights and resulted in his confession. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected this argument, and affirmed his conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, reversed the Court of Appeals. In the case of Mallory v. United States, 354 U.S. 449 (1957), it held that a criminal defendant's Fifth Amendment Due Process rights are violated when the police purposely prevent a suspect from being speedily taken before an available magistrate for arraignment. Mallory's confession was suppressed.

A Union Leader and the Law
U.S. v. Hoffa (1957, 1964)
In 1957, International Teamsters Union Vice-President, Jimmy Hoffa, was indicted in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The charges related to his alleged attempt to bribe a Congressional Committee lawyer to provide Hoffa with confidential committee documents relating to the Teamsters Union. This Committee, known as the McClellan Committee, was actively investigating allegations of illegal conduct within the Teamsters Union. After a four-month trial, Hoffa was acquitted.

Despite this acquittal, Hoffa had more legal problems. In 1964, he was convicted by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on several counts of fraud. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison. President Richard M. Nixon commuted the sentence in 1971, allowing Hoffa to be released from prison on the condition that he refrain from engaging in union activities. Hoffa unsuccessfully tried to fight this restriction in Court until his mysterious disappearance in 1975. He was declared legally dead in 1982.

Temporary Insanity Defense
U.S. v. Sickles (1859)
Congressmen Daniel Sickles killed his wife's lover, U.S. District Attorney Philip Barton Key, in a park across from the White House shortly after discovering their affair. Philip Barton Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, the man who composed the lyrics to the "Star Spangled Banner." Although popular opinion at the time was sympathetic to Sickles' plight, it appeared that he had no way to escape a first-degree murder conviction. His lawyers, some of the best in Washington, devised a defense of "temporary insanity." They argued, in essence, that Sickles was so beside himself with rage and grief upon discovering the affair that he did not know the wrongfulness of his actions at the time of their commission. The jury agreed, and found Sickles "not guilty." This was the first time in American history that a "temporary insanity" defense had been made.

The Attempt to Assassinate President Reagan
U.S. v. Hinckley (1982)
In 1981, John Hinckley Jr., attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan outside a Washington, D.C., hotel. At his trial before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Hinckley's lawyers pleaded an insanity defense. The jury agreed and returned a verdict of "not guilty by reason of mental defect." The Court ordered Hinckley confined at St. Elizabeth's Mental Hospital until such time as medical personnel agreed that he was no longer a threat to himself or to society. Although the courts have occasionally made concessions to Hinckley over the years, e.g., permitting unsupervised visits by his parents under certain circumstances, he has not yet been determined fit to rejoin society. Hinckley remains at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., a facility that specializes in inpatient care for people with acute, long-term mental health needs.