Rosenberg v. United States

346 U.S. 273
Rosenberg v. United States
Decided: Decided June 17, 1953.


[Syllabus from pages 273-276 intentionally omitted]

Acting Solicitor General Robert L. Stern, Washington, D.C., for the United States.

Messrs. Emanuel H. Bloch, John F. Finerty, New York City, and Fyke Farmer, Nashville, Tenn., Daniel D. Marshall, Los Angeles, Cal., for the Rosenbergs.

July 16, 1953.

Mr. Chief Justice VINSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

Dissenting Opinion

Mr. Justice BLACK, dissenting.

It is argued that the Court is not asked to ‘act with unseemly haste to avoid postponement of a scheduled execution.’ I do not agree. I do not believe that Government counsel or this Court has had time or an adequate opportunity to investigate and decide the very serious question raised in asking this Court to vacate the stay granted by Mr. Justice DOUGLAS. The oral arguments have been wholly unsatisfactory due entirely to the lack of time for preparation by counsel for the Government and counsel for the defendants. Certainly the time has been too short for me to give this question the study it deserves. The following are some of the reasons why I think the Court should not at this time upset the considered rulings of Mr. Justice DOUGLAS. I add my regret that the rush of this case has deprived me of any opportunity to do more at this time than hastily sketch my view on the important questions raised.

First. The Government argues that this Court has power to set aside the stay granted by Mr. Justice DOUGLAS. I think this is doubtful. I have found no statute or rule of court which permits the full Court to set aside a mere temporary stay entered by a Justice in obedience to his statutory obligations. Moreover, it is a commonplace for judges to grant stays in vacation. This is a healthy and necessary Court custom. There may have been prior instances where vacation stays of individual Justices have been set aside by the full Court before the next regular term, but no such cases have been pointed out in the Solicitor General’s argument and I have found none. So far as I can tell, the Court’s action here is unprecedented.

But if the Court could find statutory or constitutional power to vacate this stay, there are many reasons why I believe that power should not be exercised. Concededly, an individual Justice has power to grant stays where substantial questions are raised. He not merely has power to do so; there is a serious obligation upon him to grant a stay where new substantial questions are presented. Where the life or death of citizens is involved, that obligation is all the heavier. Surely the Court is not here establishing a precedent which will require it to call extra sessions during vacation every time a federal or state official asks it to hasten the electrocution of defendants without affording this Court adequate time or opportunity for exploration and study of serious legal questions. It is not inappropriate to point out that in Lambert v. Barrett, 157 U.S. 697, 15 S.Ct. 722, 39 L.Ed. 865, decided in 1895 and never overruled, this Court held that it had no jurisdiction over an appeal from a habeas corpus order of a circuit judge entered in chambers. The stay order in this case derives from petitions for habeas corpus and was entered by Mr. Justice DOUGLAS in chambers.

Second. The stay of Mr. Justice DOUGLAS in this case was based on his studied conclusion that there were substantial grounds to believe the death sentences of these two people were imposed by the District Judge in violation of law. I agree with Mr. Justice DOUGLAS. The Government contends, however, that the death sentences were properly imposed under the Espionage Act of 1917, 50 U.S.C. § 32, which gives a district judge unconditional power to impose the death penalty for violation of that Act. But the Atomic Energy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1810, 42 U.S.C.A. § 1810, passed in 1946, appears to have taken the death sentencing power from district judges, in cases of atomic energy espionage, except where juries recommend a death sentence and where there are allegations and proof that atomic energy information has been unlawfully transmitted with intent to injure the United States. The indictment here charged a conspiracy alleged to have continued from June 6, 1944, to June 16, 1950. Thus the alleged conspiracy covered one period of conduct where the 1917 Act plainly governed and another period of conduct after the Atomic Energy Act went into effect. The Rosenbergs were charged with conspiracy to disclose atomic secrets as well as other kinds of secrets. Under these circumstances it would more nearly fit into the general canons of construction to hold that a District Court could impose sentence only under the less harsh statute.

I am not unaware of the Government’s argument that this Court can and should give full effect to both these statutes, one which deprives the District Court of unconditional power to impose the death sentence and one which grants such unconditional power. This would be a strange argument in any case but it seems still stranger to me in a case which involves matters of life and death. The stay of Mr. Justice DOUGLAS is based entirely on his desire to have this matter passed upon in due course and after proper deliberation in a habeas corpus proceeding brought in district court and followed through to this Court. That is as it should be. Judicial haste is peculiarly out of place where the death penalty has been imposed for conduct part of which took place at a time when the Congress appears to have barred the imposition of the death penalty by district judges acting without a jury’s recommendation. And it seems to me that this Court has not had time or opportunity for sufficient study to give the kind of informed decision on this important question it would if the case should take its regular course.

Third. I am aware also of the argument that Mr. Justice DOUGLAS should not have considered and that we should not now consider the point here involved because the Rosenbergs’ lawyers had not originally raised it on appeal. I cannot believe, however, that if the sentence of a citizen to death is plainly illegal, this Court would allow that citizen to be executed on the grounds that his lawyers had ‘waived’ plain error. An illegal execution is no less illegal because a technical ground of ‘waiver’ is assigned to justify it. Compare Bowen v. Johnston, 306 U.S. 19, 26, 59 S.Ct. 442, 445, 83 L.Ed. 455. After having seen the Court’s order I find that it appears to agree with this view.

Fourth. The inadequate oral arguments before this Court have left me with the firm conviction that the applicability of the penal provisions of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to this case presents a substantial and serious question. This I think is fully demonstrated by the opinion written by Mr. Justice DOUGLAS when he granted the stay order, a copy of which is attached by him as an appendix to his opinion with which opinion I agree. It is my view based on the limited arguments we have heard that after passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 it was unlawful for a judge to impose the death penalty for unlawful transmittal of atomic secrets unless such a penalty was recommended by the jury trying the case. I think this question should be decided only after time has been afforded counsel for the Government and for the defendants to make more informed arguments than we have yet heard and after this Court has had an opportunity to give more deliberation than it has given up to this date. This I think would be more nearly in harmony with the best judicial traditions.

I may add that I voted to grant certiorari originally in this case. That petition for certiorari challenged the fairness of the trial. It also challenged the right of the Government to try these defendants except under the limited rules prescribed by the Constitution defining the offense of treason. These I then believed to be important questions. In motions for rehearing the arguments as to the unfairness of the trial were expanded and I again voted for review. I have long thought that the practice of some of the states to require an automatic review by the highest court of the state in cases which involve the death penalty was a good practice.

It is not amiss to point out that this Court has never reviewed this record and has never affirmed the fairness of the trial below. Without an affirmance of the fairness of the trial by the highest court of the land there may always be questions as to whether these executions were legally and rightfully carried out. I would still grant certiorari and let this Court approve or disapprove the fairness of the trials.

June 22, 1953.

Back to Top

Exported from Wikisource CC-BY-SA 3.0

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).