Why the Warren Commission?



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Why the Warren Commission?
Robert F. Cushman

New York University Law Review, Vol. 40, May 1965, pp. 477–503
(Robert F. Cushman is Associate Professor of Government at New York University.)


The shock, anger and grief at President Kennedy’s assassination, and the horror of the televised killing of his accused assassin, brought with them an overwhelming popular demand to know what had actually happened, and why. Unsatisfied by any concrete facts, the popular imagination began to fill the gap; rumors and theories combined to provide the wildest sort of explanations and rationalizations. One person had heard this, another had seen that; each remembered scrap of conversation or facial resemblance provided a new motive, a new set of relationships, a new group of associations with the two principal actors.. Oswald did it! Oswald didn’t do it! Ruby had silenced Oswald so he couldn’t tell! The spirit of hate abroad in the land had done it! It was the Rightists! The leftists!1

In the face of this universal, unceasing clamor for facts, everyone with any grounds for doing so decided to investigate. The Dallas police, of course, investigated the killings, and the state of Texas considered conducting two additional investigations—a special court of inquiry under the authority of a Dallas magistrate’s court, and a grand jury investigation under the Dallas county court. Congress considered holding committee hearings in both houses to draft legislation making the murder of the President a federal crime. The FBI, at the President’s order, undertook an investigation of the assassination and the murder of the accused assassin. The news media made use of their facilities to ferret out and publicize reports of eye-witnesses, police officials, and anyone with an imaginative story.

Then on November 29, 1963, one week after the killing of President Kennedy, President Johnson created the Warren Commission,2 Instructing it to determine and evaluate the facts and report directly to him. On December 13, the President approved a Joint Resolution giving the Commission power to subpoena witnesses and compel their testimony, even to the extent of granting them immunity if they pleaded compulsory self-incrimination.3

Considering the intense national curiosity about the President’s death, it might seem frivolous to ask what purposes the Commission was created to serve. But such a question is not wholly idle for two reasons. First, ours is a national government with only delegated powers—and the power to investigate merely to satisfy public curiosity is not one of them; second, injecting an agency which is neither prosecutive nor judicial into the business of deciding who committed a crime is so sharp a break with our traditions as to demand the most careful and critical analysis. Thus it would appear proper to examine the purposes behind the creation of the Warren Commission and the powers available to achieve those purposes. For what constitutional purposes can the executive branch of the government investigate? Was the Commission investigating for these purposes? If it was investigating for other purposes, what are the implications of this for our system of government?


Basis of the Executive Power to Investigate
There are a number of executive powers that could be used to justify investigating the assassination of a President. The first of these involves the power to investigate violations of federal law. Unlike the state of Texas, which has power to investigate all killings within its jurisdiction, the federal government has no inherent power to investigate crime.4 Only when a federal criminal statue has been violated does the executive have the power to investigate and prosecute. Even where Congress has constitutional power to create a federal crime, it has not always seen fit to do so. Thus, while it is a federal crime to threaten to harm the President,5 to conspire to injure him,6 to advocate the overthrow of the government “by force or violence or by the assassination” of any of its officials,7 or to murder a federal judge, marshal, or a number of other specified officers,8 Congress has not yet made it a federal crime to murder the President of the United States.

Since murdering the President is not a federal crime, the executive has no direct power to investigate such a murder. Therefore, if it is to investigate, it has to do so on the grounds that some other federal statute may have been violated. Two statutes exist which might conceivably form the basis for such an investigation. One of these, part of the old Civil Rights act of 1866, makes it a federal crime punishable by up to $1,000 fine, for any state officer to subject a person to the “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution….”9 Since Oswald had been killed while in the custody of the Texas police, an argument could be made that, in permitting him to be killed, the state of Texas had denied him his life without due process of law, which would violate the statute. The statute, however, requires that such deprivations be “willful,”10 and there was no suggestion that the Dallas police had intended Oswald’s death. Even if they had, it would only have justified investigating Oswald’s death, and could hardly have been stretched to justify an investigation of the assassination of the President. The statute was not even mentioned as a possible basis for FBI action in the case.

The second statute is the one mentioned above which makes it a crime to conspire to injure the President (or any other federal officer). On the basis of this the FBI could, and presumably did, investigate the question whether or not there was a conspiracy. But the further they dug into the matter the clearer it became that no one but Oswald was involved, and as the Commission has pointed out, “once it became reasonably clear that the killing was the act of a single person, the State of Texas had exclusive jurisdiction.”11 This being the case, “Federal agencies participate only upon the sufferance of the local authorities.”12

A second basis for executive action stems from powers inhering in the President in his role as Chief of State. It is he who makes foreign agreements, and it is he who recognizes foreign governments and breaks off diplomatic relations with them. It is he, too, who directs the conduct and attitude of our diplomatic and consular representatives throughout the world.13 For this reason, the possible existence of an international plot to kill the President of the United States is a question of the utmost importance. Which countries are involved, the extent of their involvement, and what follow-up plans, if any, have been laid, have the most direct and powerful bearing on the conduct of the presidency. There is unquestioned power in the presidency to investigate these matters, and a full-time agency, the CIA, does just that.

A third basis for possible executive investigation stems from the President’s somewhat amorphous role as protector of the peace. This role concedes to the President the power to take whatever action is needed to protect the institutions of the United States government from harm or destruction, and it owes its existence to the classic case of In re Neagle.14 A bizarre series of events had culminated in 1889 in an attempt on the life of Mr. Justice Field in which the assailant was killed by a deputy marshal Neagle, appointed by the Justice Department to guard Field. There was no statute authorizing such a bodyguard, let alone killing in the course of this duty, and Neagle was charged by the state of California with murder.15He could only be released on habeas corpus if he were acting pursuant to a law of the United States and the Supreme Court found that he was acting under such a law:
In the view we take of the Constitution of the United States, any obligation fairly and properly inferrible from that instrument, or any duties under the laws of the United States, is “a law” within the meaning of this phrase….”16

We cannot doubt the power of the President to take measures for the protection of a judge of one of the courts of the United States, who, while in the discharge of the duties of his office, is threatened with a personal attack which may probably result in his death….”17

That there is a peace of the United States; that a man assaulting a judge of the United States while in the discharge of his duties violates that peace; that in such case the marshal of the United States stands in the same relation to the peace of the United State which the sheriff of the county does to the peace of the State of California; are questions too clear to need argument to prove them.18
Despite the refusal of the Court to expand this doctrine in the Steel Seizure Case,19 it remains the basis for most speculation on the inherent powers of the President. The Court in Neagle was unhappy at congressional failure to provide protection for the judiciary, and Congress has since made the murder of a federal judge a crime.20 It has not only failed to do as much for the President, but agents of the Secret Service, while authorized to “protect” the President, are not even authorized to arrest the person making an attack upon him.21 But surely the killing of a President is as much a breach of the “peace of the United States” as an attempt on the life of a Supreme Court justice, and investigating such a breach of the peace is the normal function of peace officers.
The Power to Investigate—Scope and Limits
While the limits on the scope of governmental power to investigate have been developed almost entirely in connection with congressional investigations, these limits are so fundamental in nature that they would unquestionably apply to administrative agencies as well. The first of these is the requirement that Congress, in investigating, must pursue a legitimate constitutional purpose. The power to investigate does not exist for its own sake, but is ancillary to the power of government to act: each branch has its assigned duties to perform, and it is through investigation that it gets the information necessary to perform them properly. A congressional investigation, therefore, is valid only because it is necessary and proper for Congress to have information in order to legislate intelligently.22 Since Congress is limited by the Constitution to those powers which are delegated to it, and those which can be reasonably implied therefrom, it is apparent that the power to investigate, ancillary as it is, must be similarly limited. Congress cannot investigate where it cannot legislate.

It can, however, instigate, not only things about which it is actually contemplating legislating, but also those things about which legislation merely could be had.23 There have been periods in our history when the Supreme court took a very restricted view of the power of Congress to legislate, but since 1936 the Court has modified its attitude to enable Congress, under existing constitutional provisions, to deal with most of the national problems with which it is confronted. This broadening of the power to legislate has necessarily been matched by a broadening of the power to conduct investigations. As the Court said in Barenblatt v. United States, the “scope of the power of inquiry … is as penetrating and far-reaching as the potential power to enact and appropriate under the Constitution.”24 The breadth of this power was pointed up in that case by the fact that, despite the absence of any very clear authority on the part of Congress to legislate in the field of education, the Court held valid a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation into Communism in education. But despite this broadening of legislative, and hence investigative power, in at least one area the fundamental limitation still applies. Investigations cannot be made solely for the purpose of exposing the citizen’s dereliction or misconduct to the public view.25 When Congress investigates, it must be for a legitimate governmental purpose26 which will justify violating the individual’s right of privacy. It has no right to violate that privacy solely for the sake of satisfying the public’s curiosity.

The impact of this limitation upon the potential power of Congress to publicize its findings is materially softened by Supreme Court decisions which indicate that Congress may pursue an illegitimate purpose so long as it is incidental to a legitimate one. The Court made this clear as early as 1919 in United States v. Doremus27 in which it held valid the Harrison Narcotic Drug Act of 1914.28 The act required all dealers in narcotics to register and pay a $1.00 per year tax, and it was made a crime to buy or sell drugs without paying the tax and complying with elaborate registration and record-keeping provisions. The Court conceded that Congress had no authority to regulate the sale of narcotics in general, but it upheld the statute as a legitimate exercise of the revenue power, despite the fact that it “has a moral end as well as revenue in view….”29 Making it easier for the states to catch illicit drug peddlers did not invalidate a valid revenue measure. A similar conclusion was reached in United States v. Darby,30 in which the Court held valid the Fair Labor Standards Act of 193831 despite the charge that it was really an attempt to regulate the conditions of manufacture, a local operation, rather than interstate commerce. The Court pointed out that “it is no objection to the assertion of the power to regulate interstate commerce that its exercise is attended by the same incidents which attend the exercise of the police power of the state….”32

Just as the Court will refuse to invalidate congressional activity if legitimate as well as illegitimate purposes are being pursued, so will it not look into the motives behind congressional legislation.33 The classic statement of this is in McCray v. United States34 in which the Court held valid a tax of ¼ cent a pound on uncolored oleomargarine, and 10 cents a pound on oleomargarine colored to look like butter. Although obviously passed at the behest of the dairy interests to prevent competition from oleomargarine, the Court noted that on its face the statute appeared to be a revenue measure and refused to look into the motives which prompted Congress to enact it. It rejected the argument that


because a particular department of the government may exert its lawful powers with the object or motive of reaching an end not justified, therefore it becomes the duty of the judiciary to restrain the exercise of a lawful power whenever it seems to the judicial mind that such lawful power has been abused…. [T]his reduces itself to the contention that, under our constitutional system, the abuse by one department of the government [the legislative] of its lawful powers is to be corrected by the abuse of its powers by another department [the judicial].35
And, as the Court made clear in the Darby case, “the motive and purpose of a regulation of interstate commerce are matters for the legislative judgment upon the exercise of which the Constitution places no restriction and over which the courts are given no control….”36

In Watkins v. United States, a case reversing a contempt of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Court held this doctrine applicable to the question of congressional investigations. There, while emphasizing that “there is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure,”37 the Court made it clear that “a solution to our problem is not to be found in testing the motives of committee members for this purpose. Such is not our function. The motives alone would not vitiate an investigation which had been instituted by a House of Congress if that assembly’s legislative purpose is being served.38 The applicability of the McCray doctrine was emphasized even more strongly in Barenblatt, in which the exposure argument was strongly pressed:


Nor can we accept the further contention that this investigation should not be deemed to have been in furtherance of a legislative purpose because the true objective of the Committee and of the Congress was purely “exposure.” So long as Congress acts in pursuance of its constitutional power, the Judiciary lacks authority to intervene on the basis of the motives which spurred the exercise of that power…. “It is, of course, true,” as was said in McCray v. United States … “that if there be no authority in the judiciary to restrain a lawful exercise of power by another department of the government, where a wrong motive or purpose has impelled to the exertion of that power, that abuses of a power conferred may be temporarily effectual. The remedy for this, however, lies, not in the abuse by the judicial authority of its functions, but in the people, upon whom, after all, under our institutions, reliance must be placed for the correction of abuses committed in the exercise of lawful power.” These principles of course apply as well to committee investigations into the need for legislation as to the enactments which such investigations may produce…. Having scrutinized this record we cannot say that the unanimous panel of the Court of Appeals which first considered this case was wrong in concluding that “the primary purposes of the inquiry were in aid of legislative processes.”39
While Congress must investigate things about which it could legislate, as long as it does so, there is, apparently, no serious limitation upon its power to publicize the results. Nor will the Supreme Court look behind the record in an effort to determine whether the motives of the congressional inquiry were really exposure for the sake of exposure, rather than for some legitimate legislative purpose.

In only one case, apparently, has this basic limitation actually been applied by the Supreme Court to administrative agencies. In holding void an SEC investigation as beyond the agency’s power, the Court emphasized that “an official inquisition to compel disclosures of fact is not an end, but a means to an end; and it is a mere truism to say that the end must be a legitimate one to justify the means.”40 But as the power of Congress to regulate expanded into more and more areas, Congress correspondingly broadened the power of administrative agencies to make the investigations on which effective regulation must be based. From an early suggestion that “fishing expeditions” might be unconstitutional,41 the Supreme Court became more and more complaisant until, in United States v. Morton Salt Co., it indicated that in regard to corporations, at least, an investigation might be based on nothing more than official curiosity.42

Despite this broadening of the scope of administrative investigations, it seems clear that an administrative agency, like Congress and its committees, cannot expose individual misbehavior solely for the sake of exposure. If Congress cannot do so, surely it cannot authorize an agency to do so; the reasons for thus limiting Congress are even more applicable to the administrative agency, insulated as it is from direct responsibility to the public at the polls. Even Morton Salt must clearly be limited to corporations, and even there an “investigation into corporate matters may be of such a sweeping nature and so unrelated to the matter properly under inquiry as to exceed the investigatory power.”43 It is not likely that the Court would permit unnecessary exposure of private corporate business secrets, let alone the activities of private individuals. As in the case of Congress, however, it seems unlikely that the Court would interfere with an executive agency investigation because of questionable motives. Based as it is on the theory that such things are not properly the business of the judiciary, such immunity would seem to apply to all branches of government. This it seems safe to conclude that the Warren Commission could not investigate solely for the purpose of satisfying public curiosity—but if it were investigating something it had power to investigate, such as the existence of a possible conspiracy, the Commission could make its findings on matters related to conspiracy public, even though motivated not by a desire to uncover violations of the conspiracy laws, but by a desire to meet the public demand for information concerning the assassination.

A second basic limitation on the congressional investigative power is that the questions asked must be pertinent to the investigation actually under way. Like the requirement that there be a legitimate purpose in view, this limitation reflects the concept that the right to privacy should be invaded only in the interest of some clear governmental authority, and hence would apply equally to administrative and legislative investigations. this would seem to be true despite the fact that in both cases the right to investigate is reinforced by federal statute. In the case of congressional investigations, Congress has made it a crime to refuse “to answer any questions pertinent to the question under inquiry….”44 and in both Watkins and Barenblatt this was interpreted to mean that a person could refuse to answer a question not shown to be pertinent. On the other hand, the Joint Resolution authorizing the Warren Commission to obtain testimony empowered any United States court to punish for contempt a person who does not give testimony “touching the matter under investigation.”45 Although, on its face, the scope granted the Commission to ask questions seems greater than that given to congressional committees, the difference is probably more apparent than real, since under the jurisdictional concept of pertinency, the questions would be limited, in any event, to those relevant to a valid purpose for which Congress could authorize a committee investigation.46 The Court in Watkins makes this clear by distinguishing between an inherent, or jurisdictional concept of pertinency, and that imposed by statute:


Plainly these committees are restricted to the missions delegated to them, i.e., to acquire certain data to be used by the House or the Senate in coping with a problem that falls within its legislative sphere. No witness can be compelled to make disclosures on matters outside that area. This is a jurisdictional concept of pertinency drawn from the nature of a congressional committee’s source of authority. It is not wholly different from nor unrelated to the element of pertinency embodied in the criminal statute under which petitioner was prosecuted.47
One further limitation upon the power to investigate, one that applies only to administrative agencies, is that they can exercise only those powers which have been delegated to them. While Congress and the President are limited only by the Constitution, an agency is not only limited by the Constitution, but also by the extent of the power given it by the body whose agent it is. While the Supreme Court has, in the past, limited investigations to the areas authorized by Congress, Congress has, by statute, so broadened the grant of investigative power to regulatory agencies that no question of scope has arisen in recent years.48 The fact remains, however, it is not enough that the President and Congress have inherent powers enabling them to investigate; it must be shown that the Warren Commission, at least by implication, was authorized to conduct the kind of investigation which it did in fact conduct.
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