The Supreme Court
Hifjh-level criticisms of recent Supreme Court decisions have helped foment
nationwide protests from those who are zealous in their defense of states'
ri-rhts. Facts Forum News, presenting the customary pro and con sides of
this controversial issue, feels that the case for the Supreme Court can best be
argued by publishing resumes of two of the Court's better-known decisions.
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Steve Nelson
SUMMARY: In this case the question was whether the
federal Smith Act, prohibiting the knowing advocacy of
the overthrow of the United States government hy violence
and force, superseded the Pennsylvania Sedition Act. The
defendant, a member of tlie Communist Party, had been
convicted in the Pennsylvania state courts.
Chief Justice Warren's opinion held that Congress had
occupied the field to the exclusion of parallel state legislation. The opinion of the Court, then, was that the dominant interest of the federal government precluded state
intervention; moreover, administration of state acts would
conflict with the operation of the federal plan.
Justices Reed, Burton, and Minton dissented. They
asserted that the Court should not void state legislation
unless there was a clear mandate from Congress.
Chief Justice Warren delivered the opinion of tbe Court.
The respondent, Steve Nelson — an acknowledged member of the Communist Party, was convicted in the Pennsylvania court for violation of the Pennsylvania Sedition
Act' and sentenced to imprisonment for twenty years and
a fine of $10,000. The Superior Court affirmed the conviction. . . . The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, recognizing
but not reaching many alleged serious trial errors and
conduct of the trial court infringing upon respondent's
right to due process of law, decided the case on the narrow
issue of supercession of the state law by the federal Smith
Act.- In its opinion, the Court stated:
And, while the Pennsylvania statute proscribes sedition against
either the government of the United States or the government of
Pennsylvania, it is only alleged sedition against the United
States with which the instant ease is concerned. Out of all the
voluminous testimony we have not found, nor has anyone
pointed to, a single word indicating a seditious act or even
utterance directed against the government of Pennsylvania.1
The precise holding of the Court, and all that is before
us for review, is that the Smith Act of 1940,4 as amended
in 1948,"' which prohibits the knowing advocacy of the
overthrow of the government of the United States by ft*
and violence, supersedes the enforceability of the Peni
vania Sedition Act, which proscribes the same conduct-
It should be said at the outset that the decision in t,
case does not affect the right of states to enforce tW
sedition laws at times when the federal government "
not occupied the field and is not protecting the ontf*
country from seditious conduct. . . . Nor does it limit ™
jurisdiction of the states where the Constitution and Co
gress have specifically given them concurrent jurisdicti**
as was done under the Eighteenth Amendment and ™
Volstead Act. . . . Nor does it limit the right of the ■*,
to protect itself at any time against sabotage or artempi
violence of all kinds." Nor does it prevent the state **1
prosecuting where the same act constitutes both a fefl^
offense and a state offense under the police power • • "J I
Where, as in the instant case, Congress has not sta*?
specifically whether a federal statute has occupied a ",
in which the states arc otherwise free to legislate, differf
criteria have furnished touchstones for decision. Thus:
This Court, in considering the validity of state laws in tA
light of . . . federal laws touching the same subject, has ma**6
use of the following expressions: conflicting: contrary to; occ»
pying the field; repugnance; difference; irreconcilability; 'nC°j
sistency; violation; curtailment; and interference. But none &
these expressions provides an infallible constitutional test or -1
exclusive constitutional yardstick. Iu the final analysis there i'-11
be no one crystal-clear, distinctly-marked formula/
. . . Congress determined in 1940 that it was neceSW
for it to re-enter the field of antisiibversive legisl*^ |
which had been abandoned by it in 1921. In that yi'"r
enacted the Smith Act. ...
The Internal Security Act of 1950 is aimed more din'1 ■
at Communist organizations.8 It distinguishes bet*
'Pa Penal Coda Section 207, 18 Prml Pa Stat Ann Section 4207.
■377 I'll 58, 104 A2d 133.
»377 Pa. at 69, 104 A2d. at 139.
'54 Stat 670.
■18 USC Section 2385.
-177 Pa, at 70. llll AM, at 139. ..
'Ilines v. Daviclowitz, .112 US 52, 67. 85 L cd 581, 586, 61 S Ct 39*
»50 USC Section 781 i-l uq,
Id.. Section 782 (3), (4).
"'Id., Section 786.
Facts Forum News, Sept
evtember, x I
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