Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947)

Author: Justice Frankfurter

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Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947)

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE concurs, dissenting.

Today’s decision, in effect though not in terms, holds unconstitutional a power the possession of which by the States this Court has heretofore deemed axiomatic.

It cannot be repeated too often that the freedom of the press so indispensable to our democratic society presupposes an independent judiciary which will, when occasion demands, protect that freedom. To help achieve such an independent judiciary and to protect its members in their independence, the States of the Union, from the very beginning and throughout our history, have provided for prompt suppression and punishment of interference with the impartial exercise of the judicial process in an active litigation. Interference was punished not by the ordinary criminal process of trial before a jury, but through a distinctive proceeding, summary in character in the sense that a judge without a jury might impose punishment. Such protective measures against publications seriously calculated to agitate the disinterested operation of the judicial process in a litigation awaiting disposition have been deemed part of the constitutional authority of the States to establish courts to do justice as between man and man and between man and society.

The opinion of the Court reviews the Texas Court as though we were merely reviewing the judgment of a court lower in the judiciary hierarchy. Formally, no doubt, we have before us the correctness of a decision of the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas. But that decision is challenged as offending the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. We are not, therefore, merely reviewing a decision of the Texas Court; we are passing upon the power of the Texas. "The question before us must be considered in the light of the total power the State possesses. . . ." Skiriotes v. Florida, 313 U.S. 69, 79. To paraphrase what was said in Rippey v. Texas, 193 U.S. 504, 509, the question for us is this: if Texas had expressly provided in its Constitution that publications in the circumstances here found by the Texas Court shall constitute contempt of court, would this Court hold that such finding by the Texas Court and such a provision in the Texas Constitution collide with the Constitution of the United States?

Texas, speaking through its authoritative judicial voice, says:

When the several publications in the instant case are considered together and in their chronological order of appearance, there is no escape from the conclusion that it was the purpose and intent of the publishers thereof to force, compel, and coerce Judge Browning to grant Mayes a new trial. The only reason or motive for so doing was because the publishers did not agree with Judge Browning’s decision or conduct of the case. According to their viewpoint, Judge Browning was wrong, and they took it upon themselves to make him change his decision.

Tex.Cr. App. 193 S.W.2d 178, 188, 189.

After a painstaking examination of the series of publications in the setting of the circumstances of the case, and an extended hearing, all of which comprises a record here of more than 400 pages, the Court below reached this conclusion:

It is hard to conceive how the public press could have been more forcibly or substantially used or applied to make, force, and compel a judge to change a ruling or decision in a case pending before him than was here done. The publications were not only reasonably calculated to accomplish that purpose, but there was also a "clear and present danger" that they would, and the likelihood that such result would follow was "extremely serious," and the degree of "imminence extremely high." 193 S.W.2d at 189. It must be emphasized that the publications in question were made after it was notorious that a motion for a new trial had already been made and would shortly be heard. In the light of this crucial fact -- that the trial judge would shortly be called upon to reconsider his instruction to the jury to find for the plaintiff -- the court below found that

the publications and their purpose were to impress upon Judge Browning (a) that, unless he granted the motion for a new trial he would be subjected to suspicion as to his integrity and fairness and to odium and hatred in the public mind; (b) that the safe and secure course to avoid the criticism of the press and public opinion would be to grant the motion and disqualify himself from again presiding at the trial of the case, and (c) that, if he overruled the motion for a new trial, there would be produced in the public mind such a disregard for the court over which he presided as to give rise to a purpose in practice to refuse to respect and obey any order, judgment, or decree which he might render in conflict with the views of the public press.

193 S.W.2d at 189.

The Court minimizes these findings by pointing to a likeness between them and those that were made in Toledo Newspaper Co. v. United States, 247 U.S. 402, and found inadequate by Mr. Justice Holmes’ dissent, an inadequacy subsequently supported by our decision in Nye v. United States, 313 U.S. 33. The Court also draws on Craig v. Hecht, 263 U.S. 255, as though what was said there applies here. But those three case involved only the construction of the federal statute. Congress decided to allow the power to punish for contempt theretofore vested in the lower federal courts, when invoked against misbehavior not in the presence of the court, only when such misbehavior was "so near" the presence of the court "as to obstruct the administration of justice." Act of March 2, 1831, 4 Stat. 487, § 268 of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 385; Nye v. United States, supra. Texas, however, has seen fit not to restrict the power of its courts to punish for contempt as does the federal statute. The power to punish for contempt which the Texas legislature granted to its courts more than 100 years ago is not restricted as Congress restricted the contempt power of the lower federal courts. See Acts 1846, p. 200, Vernon’s Texas Statutes, Art. 1955. It is an inadmissible jump from finding that conduct is not contempt within the federal Act to finding that an exertion of State power offended the Fourteenth Amendment. Yet the Court now finds that Texas has transgressed the implications of the Due Process Clause by punishing conduct which this Court in the Toledo case thought was within the scope even of the federal Act -- a construction which it occurred to no member of the Court to question on constitutional grounds.

The difference between the issue before us and that raised by the Toledo and Craig cases is basic. In those cases, the Court had before it, and Mr. Justice Holmes was concerned only with, the proper application of a federal statute setting a narrowly confined scope to the power to punish for contempt. The Court was not concerned with the Constitutional power of the States to enforce a broader contempt policy. Such a power, in fact, had been assumed to be beyond doubt.

When a case is finished, courts are subject to the same criticism as other people; but the propriety and necessity of preventing interference with the course of justice by premature statement, argument, or intimidation hardly can be denied.

So wrote Mr. Justice Holmes for this Court. Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454, 463. To be sure, he wrote this 40 years ago, and on several occasions thereafter, as part of the formulation of his profound tolerance for freedom of expression, he spoke out against misuse of the power to punish for contempt. But nothing that that great judge ever wrote qualified in the slightest his conviction that the theory of our system of justice is

that the conclusions to be reached in a case will be induced only by evidence and argument in open court, and not by any outside influence, whether of private talk or public print.

Patterson v. Colorado, supra, 205 U.S. at 462. Mr. Justice Holmes had no tolerance whatever for any special claim by judges to immunity from criticism. He was against anything that smacked of summary proceeding for what was known as "scandalizing the court," that is, speaking ill of a court as an institution, and thereby argumentatively bringing it into disrepute. He would allow summary punishment of conduct calculated to affect a judge in the discharge of his duty only as to matters "pending" before him in the active sense of that term. "It is not enough that somebody may hereafter move to have something done." So he wrote, dissenting, in Craig v. Hecht, supra, at 281. And, in his misapplied dissent in the Toledo case, he expressed his impatience with federal judges who take notice of newspaper comments to which a judge should be indifferent. But his opinion in that case conveys not a doubt as to the power of States to enforce a policy for the punishment of contempt in relation to a pending case, though the State policy be not limited as Congress limited the power of the federal courts to punish for contempt. There is not a breath of a suggestion in the opinion in the Nye case that the restricted geographic meaning which the Court gave to the Act of Congress designed to limit the power of the lower federal courts was required by constitutional considerations. The opinions of Mr. Justice Holmes contain not the remotest hint that the Due Process Clause withdrew from the States the power to base a finding of contempt on publication aimed at a particular outcome of a matter awaiting adjudication. And it is worthy of note that, in the very opinion in which the phrase "clear and present danger" was first used by Mr. Justice Holmes, he referred to his opinion in the Patterson case, and not with disapproval. See Schenck v. United States, 279 U.S. 47, 51-52.

We are not dealing here with criticisms, whether temperate or unbridled, of action in a case after a judge is through with it, or of his judicial qualifications, or of his conduct in general. Comment on what a judge has done -- criticism of the judicial process in a particular case after it has exhausted itself -- no matter how ill informed or irresponsible or misrepresentative, is part of the precious right of the free play of opinion. Whatever violence there may be to truth in such utterances must be left to the correction of truth.

The publications now in question did not constitute merely a narrative of a judge’s conduct in a particular case, nor a general commentary upon his competence or his philosophy. Nor were they a plea for reform of the Texas legal system to the end that county court judges should be learned in the law and that a judgment in a suit of forcible detainer may be appealable. The thrust of the articles was directed to what the judge should do on a matter immediately before him -- namely, to grant a motion for a new trial. So the Texas Court found. And it found this not in the abstract, but on the particular stage of the happenings and in the circumstances disclosed by the record. The Texas Court made its findings with reference to the locality where the events took place and in circumstances which may easily impart significance to the Texas Court but may elude full appreciation here.

Corpus Christi, the locale of the drama, had a population of less than 60,000 at the last census, and Nueces County about 92,000. The three papers which published the articles complained of are under common control, and are the only papers of general circulation in the area. It can hardly be a compelling presumption that such papers so controlled had no influence at a time when patriotic fervor was running high, in stirring up sentiment of powerful groups in a small community in favor of a veteran to whom, it was charged, a great wrong had been done. It would seem a natural inference, as the court below in effect found, that these newspapers whipped up public opinion against the judge to secure reversal of his action, and then professed merely to report public opinion. We cannot say that the Texas Court could not properly find that these newspapers asked of the judge, and instigated powerful sections of the community to ask of the judge, that which no one has any business to ask of a judge except the parties and their counsel in open court -- namely, that he should decide one way rather than another. Only if we can say that the Texas Court had no basis in reason to find what it did find can we deny that the purpose of the articles, in their setting, was to induce the judge to grant a new trial. Surely a jury could reach such a conclusion on these facts. We ought not to allow less leeway to the Texas Court in drawing inferences than we would to a jury. Because it is a question of degree, the field in which a court, like a jury, may "exercise its judgment is necessarily a wide one." Mr. Justice Brandeis, in Schaefer v. United States, 251 U.S. 466, 483. Of course, the findings by a State court of what are usually deemed facts cannot foreclose our scrutiny of them if a constitutional right depends on a fair appraisal of those facts. But it would be novel doctrine indeed to say that we may consider the record as it comes before us from a State court as though it were our duty or right to ascertain the facts in the first instance. A State cannot, by torturing facts, preclude us from considering whether it has thereby denied a constitutional right. Neither can this Court find a violation of a constitutional right by denying to a State its right to a fair appraisal of facts and circumstances peculiarly its concern. Otherwise, in every case coming here from a State court, this Court might make independent examination of the facts, because every right claimed under the Constitution is a fundamental right. The "most respectful attention" which we have been told is due to a State would then be merely an empty profession. See Pennekamp v. Florida, 328 U.S. 331, 335.

If, under all the circumstances, the Texas Court here was not justified in finding that these publications created "a clear and present danger" of the substantive evil that Texas had a right to prevent -- namely the purposeful exertion of extraneous influence in having the motion for a new trial granted -- "clear and present danger" becomes merely a phrase for covering up a novel, iron constitutional doctrine. Hereafter, the States cannot deal with direct attempts to influence the disposition of a pending controversy by a summary proceeding, except when the misbehavior physically prevents proceedings from going on in court or occurs in its immediate proximity. Only the pungent pen of Mr. Justice Holmes could adequately comment on such a perversion of the purpose of his phrase.

Changes are rung on the remark of Mr. Justice Holmes in the Toledo case that "a judge of the United States is expected to be a man of ordinary firmness of character." 247 U.S. at 424. But it is pertinent to observe that that was said by an Olympian who was so remote from the common currents of life that he did not read newspapers. Even a conscientious judge not a layman, and not merely one serving under a short judicial tenure, may find himself in a dilemma when subjected to a barrage pressing a particular result in a case immediately before him. He may not unnaturally be moved to do what is urged, or he may be impelled to display his independence and not give to the arguments on behalf of the motion for a new trial that serene and undisturbed consideration which often leads judges to grant such a motion. It has not been unknown that judges persist in error to avoid giving the appearance of weakness and vacillation. Thus, one or another of the litigants before the Court may have been denied that disinterested exercise of judgment which is of the essence of the judicial process. The demands found to have been made upon the judge by these papers may agitate even a conscientious judge. He may himself be unaware of the extent to which his powers of reason have not the sway they would otherwise have. Or a judge, proud of his independence, may unconsciously have his back stiffened, and thereby his mind, when hearing the motion for a new trial and passing on its validity. Judges are not merely the habitations of bloodless categories of the law which pursue their predestined ends.

The fact that it cannot be demonstrated how the delicate balance of an adjudication was tampered with, or whether it was, does not prove that it was not tampered with. To rely on the assumption that judges are men of fortitude and that no judge "worthy of the name" would be influenced in his decision by a publication directed toward a particular disposition of a pending litigation, is to say in effect that the Due Process Clause precludes a State from believing that there may be such a psychological danger, short of the fantastic situation where a judge confesses that he decided as he did because of newspaper pressure, or avows that he came awfully close to being derelict in his judicial duty because of such pressure. In Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, this Court did not profess to make a constitutional dogma of so questionable a psychological assumption. It did not condemn outright the power of a State summarily to punish for contempt a publication uttered outside of court but brought to bear upon a pending case. The opinion of the Texas Court gives every indication of scrupulous obedience to the requirements of the Bridges case. Nor did the dissenting judge find conflict with the Bridges case. If we accord "most respectful attention" to what the State court has decided, I am unable to find any ground for rejecting the application which the Texas Court made to the circumstances of this case of the principles which it drew from the Bridges case.

Is it conceivable that even the most doctrinaire libertarian would think it consonant with the impartiality which adjudication presupposes to publish a poll regarding the outcome desired by a community in a pending case? How can the insertion into the scales of justice of a newspaper’s own notion of the desire of a community for a particular result in a pending case be more permissible than the report of public feeling as ascertained by a public poll? Again, suppose the newspaper articles here in controversy had been enclosed in a letter to the judge urging, on the basis of these articles, a new trial. Would the Constitution of the United States forbid a State to deal with such conduct through the corrective process of contempt? But a denial of this power to the States where newspapers carry the same articles directed to the same end can only be on the basis that private correspondence has less constitutional protection than have newspapers.

To agree with a principle in principle only to depart from it in practice has not been so fruitful of good in the world of diplomacy as to suggest its importation into the judicial process. If it be deemed that the Due Process Clause put an end to the historic power of States to allow summary proceedings for contempt by interference with an actually pending controversy, or even if it be deemed offensive to due process for the judge whose conduct is called in question to sit in judgment upon the contemnor because self-interest is too great, see Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510, and Cooke v. United States, 267 U.S. 517, 539, such a break with the past had best be completely candid. It may well be the deeper wisdom to treat with intelligent neglect paragraphs that are calculated and intended to influence the disposition of litigation. But the wisdom of such wisdom is not the measure of the constitutional power of the several States to deal with extraneous influence designed to affect the outcome of a particular case.

We think the judgment should be affirmed.


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Chicago: Frankfurter, "Frankfurter, J., Dissenting," Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947) in 331 U.S. 367 331 U.S. 385–331 U.S. 394. Original Sources, accessed December 10, 2023,

MLA: Frankfurter. "Frankfurter, J., Dissenting." Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947), in 331 U.S. 367, pp. 331 U.S. 385–331 U.S. 394. Original Sources. 10 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: Frankfurter, 'Frankfurter, J., Dissenting' in Craig v. Harney, 331 U.S. 367 (1947). cited in 1947, 331 U.S. 367, pp.331 U.S. 385–331 U.S. 394. Original Sources, retrieved 10 December 2023, from