Rosenberg v. United States (346 U.S. 273)/Dissent Frankfurter

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United States Supreme Court

346 U.S. 273

Rosenberg  v.  United States (346 U.S. 273)

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, dissenting.

On an application made after adjournment of the Court, Mr. Justice DOUGLAS granted a stay of execution of the death sentences of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. On the afternoon of the same day, the Attorney General of the United States filed an application to convene the Court in Special Term with a view to vacating the stay. It was not until late that afternoon that arrangements for convening the Court the following day could be completed. Less than three hours before the Court convened at about noon on Thursday, June 18, and in the case of some members of the Court only a few minutes before noon, did the individual members of the Court receive the Government's application and brief bearing on the propriety and reviewability of Mr. Justice DOUGLAS' order.

There followed three hours of argument on jurisdictional and procedural issues as well as on the issue of the substantiality of the question of law raised by the application for a stay which led to Mr. Justice DOUGLAS' order. In vacating that order the Court found no infirmity in it on any jurisdictional or procedural ground. The Court recognized Mr. Justice DOUGLAS' power to entertain the application for a stay; [1] his power to consider a question though raised by counsel not of record; his power to consider a question not heretofore urged, when it concerned the legality of a sentence. See Ex parte Lange, 18 Wall. 163, 21 L.Ed. 872.

Thus the only issue in the case was whether the question on the basis of which Mr. Justice DOUGLAS acted was patently frivolous or was sufficiently serious to require the judicial process to run its course with the deliberation necessary for confident judgment. That is the sole issue to which this opinion is addressed. All else is irrelevant. Once the Court conceded, as it did, that the substantiality of the question raised before Mr. Justice DOUGLAS was the sole issue, it became wholly immaterial how many other questions had previously been raised and considered on their merits in the District Court and in the Court of Appeals, or how many times review was sought on these questions and refused by this Court. It was equally immaterial how long a time intervened between the original trial of this case and the present proceeding, and immaterial that this was a last-minute effort almost on the eve of the executions. To allow such irrelevancies to enter the mind not unnaturally tends to bend the judicial judgment in a false direction.

And so I turn to what is for me controlling in this case. I summarized my position in the following notation on the Court's order:

'Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER is of opinion that the questions raised for the first time yesterday before the full Court by the application of the Attorney General are complicated and novel. He believes that, in order to enable the Court to adjudicate these issues upon adequate deliberation, this application should be disposed of only after opportunity has been afforded to counsel for both sides to make an adequate study and presentation. In due course, Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER will set forth more specifically the grounds for this position.'

Painful as it is, I am bound to say that circumstances precluded what to me are indispensable conditions for solid judicial judgment. They precluded me, and now preclude me, from saying that the legal issue that was raised before Mr. Justice DOUGLAS was without substance. Let me set forth some of the difficulties that immediately arise upon consideration of that issue.

The basis on which the jury convicts is authoritatively to be taken from what the judge tells the jury. In this case, the jury's attention was especially directed to the fact that the charge was a conspiracy to obtain and transmit classified materials pertaining in part to the atomic bomb:

'Bear in mind-please listen to this, ladies and gentlemen that the Government contends that the conspiracy was one to obtain not only atomic bomb information, but other secret and classified information; that the information including the report regarding fire-control equipment requested of Elitcher by Sobell or Rosenberg was classified; that the atomic bomb information transmitted by the Rosenbergs was classified as top secret; that based on Rosenberg's alleged statements to Greenglass, other secret information such as mathematical data on atomic energy for airplanes, information relating to a 'sky platform' project and other information was obtained by Julius Rosenberg from scientist contacts in the country.' R. 1557.

And the indictment charged that the conspiracy continued from 1944 to 1950. Such 'averments of time in the indictment are expected and intended to be proved as laid.' United States v. Kissel, 218 U.S. 601, 609, 31 S.Ct. 124, 126, 54 L.Ed. 1168. Indeed, the judge told the jury: 'You must first determine, from all the evidence in the case, relating to the period of time defined in the indictment, whether or not a conspiracy existed.' R. 1552. Only one conspiracy could have been found by the jury to have existed, and that was the conspiracy averred in the indictment, a conspiracy continuous from a date certain in 1944 to a date certain in 1950. The Government could of course have charged a conspiracy beginning in 1944 and ending on July 31, 1946, the day before the Atomic Energy Act, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1801 et seq., came into effect. It did not do so. That fact is of decisive importance. The consequences of a conspiracy that was afoot for six years might have been vastly different from those of a conspiracy that terminated within two years, that is, by the time Congress devised legislation to protect atomic energy secrets.

It is suggested that the overt acts laid in the indictment all occurred before the effective date of the Atomic Energy Act and that hence the indictment did not charge any offense committed after that effective date. But, again, the offense charged in the indictment was a conspiracy, not one or more over acts. [2] As the judge told the jury, they had to find a conspiracy in order to convict, a conspiracy aimed principally at obtaining atomic secrets and characterized as such by the overt acts alleged, but a conspiracy, I cannot too often repeat, alleged to have been continuous to a date certain in 1950. The Government having tried the Rosenbergs for a conspiracy, continuing from 1944 to 1950, to reveal atomic secrets among other things, it flies in the face of the charge made, the evidence adduced and the basis on which the conviction was secured now to contend that the terminal date of the Rosenberg Conspiracy preceded the effective date of the Atomic Energy Act.

It thus appears-although, of course, I would feel more secure in my conviction had I had the opportunity to make a thorough study of the lengthy record in this case-that the conspiracy with which the Rosenbergs were charged is one falling in part within the terms of the Atomic Energy Act, passed by Congress in 1946 and specifically dealing with classified information pertaining to the recent developments in atomic energy. There remains the question whether the sentence for such a conspiracy could be imposed under the Espionage Act.

Congress was not content with the penal provisions of the Espionage Act of 1917 to prevent disclosure of atomic energy information. The relevant provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 differ in several respects from those of the Espionage Act. For one thing the 1946 Act makes possible the death penalty for disclosures in time of peace as well as in war. Some disclosures which fell generally within the Espionage Act now specifically fall under § 10 of the Atomic Energy Act. The decisive thing in this case is that under the Espionage Act the power to impose a sentence of death was left exclusively to the discretion of the court, while under the Atomic Energy Act a sentence of death can be imposed only upon recommendation of the jury.

Surely it needs only statement that with such a drastic difference in the authority to take life between the Espionage Act and the Atomic Energy Act, it cannot be left within the discretion of a prosecutor whether the judge may impose the death sentence wholly on his own authority or whether he may do so only upon recommendation of the jury. Nothing can rest on the prosecutor's caprice in placing on the indictment the label of the 1917 Act or of the 1946 Act. To seek demonstration of such an absurdity, in defiance of our whole conception of impersonality in the criminal law, would be an exercise in self-stultification. The indorsement of an indictment, the theory under which the prosecutor is operating, his belief or error as to the statute which supports an indictment or under which sentences may be imposed, are all wholly immaterial. [3] Williams v. United States, 168 U.S. 382, 389, 18 S.Ct. 92, 94, 42 L.Ed. 509.

These considerations-the fact that Congress and not the whim of the prosecutor fixes sentences, that the allegations of an indictment are to be judged by the relevant statute under which punishment may be meted out and not by the design of the prosecutor or the assumption of the trial court-cut across all the talk about repeal by implication and other empty generalities on statutory construction. Congress does not have to say in so many words that hereafter a judge cannot without jury recommendation impose a sentence of death on a charge of conspiracy that falls within the Atomic Energy Act. It is enough if in fact Congress has provided that hereafter such a death sentence is to depend on the will of the jury.

This much, at least, lies on the surface of an analysis of the two statutes. The Reports of this Court are replete with instances of marked division of opinion in construing criminal statutes; doubtful and ambiguous statutory language and like ambiguities in the interpretative materials that led to many of those divisions are certainly not more impressive, to say the least, than the ambiguities and difficulties here. See, e.g., United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 64 S.Ct. 134, 88 L.Ed. 48; Singer v. United States, 323 U.S. 338, 65 S.Ct. 282, 89 L.Ed. 285; United States v. Petrillo, 332 U.S. 1, 67 S.Ct. 1538, 91 L.Ed. 1877; United States v. C.I.O., 335 U.S. 106, 68 S.Ct. 1349, 92 L.Ed. 1849; United States v. Williams, 341 U.S. 70, 71 S.Ct. 581, 95 L.Ed. 758; United States v. Hood, 343 U.S. 148, 72 S.Ct. 568, 96 L.Ed. 846.

In all matters of statutory construction one goes, especially these days, to the history of the legislation and other illuminating materials. It is almost mathematically demonstrable that there just was not time within twelve waking hours to dig out, to assess, to assemble, and to formulate the meaning of legislative materials. Suffice it to say that such materials bearing on legislative purpose as a necessarily very limited inquiry has revealed do not justify certitude. See S.Rep. No. 1211, 79th Cong., 2d Sess. 23-24; 92 Cong.Rec. 6082, 6096, 9257, 10194; cf. id., at 9481-9482. And an authoritative commentary on the Atomic Energy Act, written by counsel for the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy which drafted the statute, not only recognizes a compelling need for judicial decision in order to reconcile the conflicting penalty provisions of that Act and of the Espionage Act but seems, as I read it, to point to the view that on facts like those of this case the Atomic Energy Act may well be found to apply to the exclusion of the Espionage Act. [4] Newman, Control of Information Relating to Atomic Energy, 56 Yale L.J. 768.

Neither counsel nor the Court, in the time available, were able to go below the surface of the question raised by the application for a stay which Mr. Justice DOUGLAS granted. More time was needed than was had for adequate consideration. Arguments by counsel are an indispensable adjunct of the judicial process, and responsible arguments require adequate opportunity for preparation. They must be pressed with the force of partisanship. And because arguments are partisan, judgment further presupposes ample time and an unhurried mind for independent study and reflection by judges as a basis for discussion in conference. Without adequate study there cannot be adequate reflection; without adequate reflection there cannot be adequate discussion; without adequate discussion there cannot be the searching and fruitful interchange of informed minds which is indispensable to wise decision and which alone can produce compelling opinions. We have not had in this case carefully prepared argument. We have not had what cannot exist without that essential preliminary. We have not had the basis for reaching conclusions and for supporting them in opinions. Can it be said that there was time to go through the process by which cases are customarily decided here?

The crux of all I am suggesting is that none of the obvious considerations for bringing the all too leaden-footed proceedings in this case to an end should have barred the full employment of the deliberative process necessary for reaching a firm conclusion on the issue on which the Court has now spoken, however unfortunate it may be that that issue did not emerge earlier than it did. Since I find myself under the disability of having had insufficient time to explore the issue as I believe it should have been explored, nothing I am saying may be taken to intimate that I would now sustain the last claim made in behalf of the Rosenbergs. But I am clear that the claim had substance and that the opportunity for adequate exercise of the judicial judgment was wanting.

To be writing an opinion in a case affecting two lives after the curtain has been rung down upon them has the appearance of pathetic futility. But history also has its claims. This case is an incident in the long and unending effort to develop and enforce justice according to law. The progress in that struggle surely depends on searching analysis of the past, though the past cannot be recalled, as illumination for the future. Only by sturdy self-examination and self-criticism can the necessary habits for detached and wise judgment be established and fortified so as to become effective when the judicial process is again subjected to stress and strain.

American criminal procedure has its defects, though its essentials have behind them the vindication of long history. But all systems of law, however wise, are administered through men and therefore may occasionally disclose the frailties of men. Perfection may not be demanded of law, but the capacity to counteract inevitable, though rare, frailties is the mark of a civilized legal mechanism.

June 19, 1953.


^1  Natually enough the Government and the Court 'do not doubt that Mr. Justice DOUGLAS had power to issue the stay in this proceeding.' How could there be doubt about a power that has existed uninterruptedly ever since Congress gave it by the Act of September 24, 1789? Section 14 of the First Judiciary Act, 1 Stat. 73, 81-82.

^2  It is worth noting that under the Atomic Energy Act it is very probably not necessary, since the Act, unlike the Espionage Act, does not make it a requirement, to prove overt acts in furtherance of a conspiracy. Cf. Singer v. United States, 323 U.S. 338, 65 S.Ct. 282, 89 L.Ed. 285. If so, under the Atomic Energy Act it would not have been necessary to allege or prove an overt act involving atomic espionage subsequent to 1946 in order to obtain a conviction on a conspiracy indictment such as the one here. It is not without significance that the relevance of this point was not considered by the Government in its argument or submission. This is significant not because it discloses a failure of counsel, but because to require consideration of this and other points within twenty-four hours after a complex of problems was first put forward is to presuppose omniscient lawyers.

^3  'In order to determine whether an indictment charges an offense against the United States, designation by the pleader of the statute under which he purported to lay the charge is immaterial. He may have conceived the charge under one statute which would not sustain the indictment, but it may nevertheless come within the terms of another statute. See Williams v. United States, 168 U.S. 382, 18 S.Ct. 92, 42 L.Ed. 509. On the other hand, an indictment may validly satisfy the statute under which the pleader proceeded, but other statutes not referred to by him may draw the sting of criminality from the allegations.' United States v. Hutcheson, 312 U.S. 219, 229, 61 S.Ct. 463, 464, 85 L.Ed. 788.

^4  That the Atomic Energy Act is not a pellucid piece of draftsmanship so that he who runs may read is indicated by this general observation of Mr. Newman: 'Skillful administration and careful judicial consideration will be needed to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies and to effect the evident intent of Congress-regardless of the labyrinth of confusion that inadequate drafting has created.' 56 Yale L.J., at 791.

Some of the specific difficulties laid bare by Mr. Newman are of immediate relevance to the problem before the Court:

'It is reasonable to suppose that Congress did not intend to give the prosecuting attorney the option of moving under the Espionage Act instead of the Atomic Energy Act where an offense involving information relating to atomic energy is specifically described in the latter and only broadly and generically encompassed by the former. On the other hand this judgment creates an intellectual predicament. Its acceptance might mean that while the disclosure of information relating to the construction of a machine gun, may, under given circumstances, be punishable by death, the disclosure of information relating to the exact construction of an atomic bomb, would not, under the same circumstances, be punishable by more than 10 years' imprisonment. But in spite of its anomalous consequences the conclusion seems inescapable. When Congress adopted Section 10 of the Atomic Energy Act it intended to prescribe the exact punishment to be applied for all violations involving the unlawful dissemination of restricted atomic energy data. And, in stating in Section 10(b)(6) that the applicable provisions of other laws were not to be excluded, it meant to guard against possible omissions, rather than to give a prosecutor the option of proceeding under other laws against offenses fully covered by the Atomic Energy Act for the sole reason that under such other laws these offenses bore heavier penalties.' 56 Yale L.J., at 797-798.

Finally, this specially qualified student of the Act concludes that the conflicts and inconsistencies which he laid bare regarding the penalty provisions can only be resolved, as such conflicts and inconsistencies inevitably are resolved, by adjudication:

'Differing penalty provisions: The difference can only be resolved by judicial decision. Fortunately, this raises problems within judicial proceedings as such and does not pose any difficulties or dilemmas for the Commission in administering the Act.' 56 Yale L.J., at 799.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).