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Unearthing Family History

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I’ve previously shared some of the questions that have come in through our Ask A Librarian service, but I have not yet blogged about some of the questions we get in person in the Reading Room. Recently, a patron* asked for assistance in researching a U.S. Supreme Court case about her grandfather: Watkins v. U.S., 354 U.S. 178 (1957), along with the records and briefs from the case. I was also able to help her locate the original hearings that resulted in the case. I found the case fascinating and hoped you would also.

John Watkins was convicted of a violation of  2 U.S.C. § 192, which makes it a misdemeanor for any person summoned as a witness by either house of Congress or any congressional committee to refuse to answer any question “pertinent to the question under inquiry.”

Lights, camera, action in House Un-American Committee hearing, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, LC-DIG-ppmsca-24369

Watkins was summoned to testify before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities on April 29, 1954. He answered all questions posed about himself and his activities. When asked questions relating to people he may have known to be communist, he refused to answer, stating that those questions were outside of the scope upon which he had been called, as well as what the committee had the power to demand. Watkins was convicted of contempt of Congress under 2 U.S.C. §  192. He was fined $500 and given a suspended prison sentence of one year.

Watkins eventually appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. He asserted that Congress does not have the constitutional authority to delegate to itself or to a committee the power to define and determine individual wrongdoing by exposing a person to public scorn and retribution. As a result of the appeal, his conviction was overturned. The court, with an opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren, held the Committee’s areas of inquiry and the obligation to answer questions must be related to, and in furtherance of, a legitimate task of Congress. The witness must be “accorded a fair opportunity to determine whether he was within his rights in refusing to answer.”

*The patron has kindly agreed to let me this share the information.

Comments (2)

  1. What an incredible story! Thank you for sharing.

  2. While I understand why this post-1923 newspaper photo used in this story, i.e., may have copyright restrictions, I don’t understand why “larger images display only at the Library of Congress?” It appears that the larger jpg and tiff versions are only viewable on computers physically at the Library of Congress. Why can’t the Library of Congress display a 70 ppi version on the public web or a version with either a watermark or embedded copyright protection?

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