Bills of Attainder

ArtI.S9.C3.1 Bills of Attainder

Article I, Section 9, Clause 3:

No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.

“Bills of attainder . . . are such special acts of the legislature, as inflict capital punishments upon persons supposed to be guilty of high offences, such as treason and felony, without any conviction in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings. If an act inflicts a milder degree of punishment than death, it is called a bill of pains and penalties. . . . In such cases, the legislature assumes judicial magistracy, pronouncing upon the guilt of the party without any of the common forms and guards of trial, and satisfying itself with proofs, when such proofs are within its reach, whether they are conformable to the rules of evidence, or not. In short, in all such cases, the legislature exercises the highest power of sovereignty, and what may be properly deemed an irresponsible despotic discretion, being governed solely by what it deems political necessity or expediency, and too often under the influence of unreasonable fears, or unfounded suspicions.” 1 The phrase “bill of attainder,” as used in this clause and in clause 1 of § 10, applies to bills of pains and penalties as well as to the traditional bills of attainder.2

The prohibition embodied in this clause is not to be narrowly construed in the context of traditional forms but is to be interpreted in accordance with the designs of the framers so as to preclude trial by legislature, which would violate the separation of powers.3 The clause thus prohibits all legislative acts, “no matter what their form, that apply either to named individuals or to easily ascertainable members of a group in such a way as to inflict punishment on them without a judicial trial. . . .” 4 That the Court has applied the clause dynamically is revealed by a consideration of the three cases in which acts of Congress have been struck down as violating it.5 In Ex parte Garland,6 the Court struck down a statute that required attorneys to take an oath that they had taken no part in the Confederate rebellion against the United States before they could practice in federal courts. The statute, and a state constitutional amendment requiring a similar oath of persons before they could practice certain professions,7 were struck down as legislative acts inflicting punishment on a specific group the members of which had taken part in the rebellion and therefore could not truthfully take the oath. The clause then lay unused until 1946 when the Court used it to strike down a rider to an appropriations bill forbidding the use of money appropriated in the bill to pay the salaries of three named persons whom the House of Representatives wished discharged because they were deemed to be “subversive.” 8

Then, in United States v. Brown,9 a sharply divided Court held void as a bill of attainder a statute making it a crime for a member of the Communist Party to serve as an officer or as an employee of a labor union. Congress could, Chief Justice Warren wrote for the majority, under its commerce power, protect the economy from harm by enacting a prohibition generally applicable to any person who commits certain acts or possesses certain characteristics making him likely in Congress’s view to initiate political strikes or other harmful deeds and leaving it to the courts to determine whether a particular person committed the specified acts or possessed the specified characteristics. It was impermissible, however, for Congress to designate a class of persons—members of the Communist Party—as being forbidden to hold union office.10 . However, in United States v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258 (1967), a very similar statute making it unlawful for any member of a “Communist-action organization” to be employed in a defense facility was struck down on First Amendment grounds and the bill of attainder argument was ignored. The dissenters viewed the statute as merely expressing in shorthand the characteristics of those persons who were likely to utilize union responsibilities to accomplish harmful acts; Congress could validly conclude that all members of the Communist Party possessed those characteristics.11

The majority's decision in Brown cast in doubt certain statutes and certain statutory formulations that had been held not to constitute bills of attainder. For example, a predecessor of the statute struck down in Brown, which had conditioned a union's access to the NLRB upon the filing of affidavits by all of the union's officers attesting that they were not members of or affiliated with the Communist Party, had been upheld,12 and although Chief Justice Warren distinguished the previous case from Brown on the basis that the Court in the previous decision had found the statute to be preventive rather than punitive,13 he then proceeded to reject the contention that the punishment necessary for a bill of attainder had to be punitive or retributive rather than preventive,14 thus undermining the prior decision. Of much greater significance was the effect of the Brown decision on “conflict-of-interest” legislation typified by that upheld in Board of Governors v. Agnew.15 The statute there forbade any partner or employee of a firm primarily engaged in underwriting securities from being a director of a national bank.16 . Chief Justice Warren distinguished the prior decision and the statute on three grounds from the statute then under consideration. First, the union statute inflicted its deprivation upon the members of a suspect political group in typical bill-of-attainder fashion, unlike the statute in Agnew. Second, in the Agnew statute, Congress did not express a judgment upon certain men or members of a particular group; it rather concluded that any man placed in the two positions would suffer a temptation any man might yield to. Third, Congress established in the Agnew statute an objective standard of conduct expressed in shorthand which precluded persons from holding the two positions.

Apparently withdrawing from the Brown analysis in upholding a statute providing for governmental custody of documents and recordings accumulated during the tenure of former President Nixon,17 . For an application of this statute, see Nixon v. Warner Communications, 435 U.S. 589 (1978). the Court set out a rather different formula for deciding bill of attainder cases.18 The law specifically applied only to President Nixon and directed an executive agency to assume control over the materials and prepare regulations providing for ultimate public dissemination of at least some of them; the act assumed that it did not deprive the former President of property rights but authorized the award of just compensation if it should be judicially determined that there was a taking. First, the Court denied that the clause denies the power to Congress to burden some persons or groups while not so treating all other plausible individuals or groups; even the present law's specificity in referring to the former President by name and applying only to him did not condemn the act because he “constituted a legitimate class of one” on whom Congress could “fairly and rationally” focus.19 Second, even if the statute's specificity did bring it within the prohibition of the clause, the lodging of Mr. Nixon's materials with the GSA did not inflict punishment within the meaning of the clause. This analysis was a three-pronged one: 1) the law imposed no punishment traditionally judged to be prohibited by the clause; 2) the law, viewed functionally in terms of the type and severity of burdens imposed, could rationally be said to further nonpunitive legislative purposes; and 3) the law had no legislative record evincing a congressional intent to punish.20 That is, the Court, looking “to its terms, to the intent expressed by Members of Congress who voted its passage, and to the existence or nonexistence of legitimate explanations for its apparent effect,” concluded that the statute served to further legitimate policies of preserving the availability of evidence for criminal trials and the functioning of the adversary legal system and in promoting the preservation of records of historical value, all in a way that did not and was not intended to punish the former President.

The clause protects individual persons and groups who are vulnerable to nonjudicial determinations of guilt and does not apply to a state; nor does a state have standing to invoke the clause for its citizens against the Federal Government.21

3 J. Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 1338 (1833). back
Cummings v. Missouri, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 277, 323 (1867); cf. United States v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437, 441–442 (1965). back
United States v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437, 442–46 (1965). Four dissenting Justices, however, denied that any separation of powers concept underlay the clause. Id. at 472–73. back
United States v. Lovett, 328 U.S. 303, 315 (1946). back
For a rejection of the Court's approach and a plea to adhere to the traditional concept, see id. at 318 (Justice Frankfurter concurring). back
71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 333 (1867). back
Cummings v. Missouri, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 277 (1867). back
United States v. Lovett, 328 U.S. 303 (1946). back
381 U.S. 437 (1965). back
The Court of Appeals had voided the statute as an infringement of First Amendment expression and association rights, but the Court majority did not rely upon this ground. 334 F.2d 488 (9th Cir. 1964). However, in United States v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258 (1967), a very similar statute making it unlawful for any member of a “Communist-action organization” to be employed in a defense facility was struck down on First Amendment grounds and the bill of attainder argument was ignored. back
United States v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437, 462 (1965) (Justices White, Clark, Harlan, and Stewart dissenting). back
American Communications Ass'n v. Douds, 339 U.S. 382 (1950). back
Douds, 339 U.S. at 413, 414, cited in United States v. Brown, 381 U.S. 437, 457–458 (1965). back
Brown, 381 U.S. at 458–61. back
329 U.S. 441 (1947). back
12 U.S.C. § 78. back
The Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, Pub. L. No. 93-526, 88 Stat. 1695 (1974), note following 44 U.S.C. § 2107. For an application of this statute, see Nixon v. Warner Communications, 435 U.S. 589 (1978). back
Nixon v. Administrator of General Services, 433 U.S. 425, 468–84 (1977). Justice Stevens' concurrence is more specifically directed to the facts behind the statute than is the opinion of the Court, id. at 484, and Justice White, author of the dissent in Brown, merely noted he found the act nonpunitive. Id. at 487. Chief Justice Burger and Justice Rehnquist dissented. Id. at 504, 536–45. Adding to the impression of a departure from Brown is the quotation in the opinion of the Court at several points of the Brown dissent, id. at 470 n.31, 471 n.34, while the dissent quoted and relied on the opinion of the Court in Brown. Id. at 538, 542. back
433 U.S. at 472. Justice Stevens carried the thought further, although in the process he severely limited the precedential value of the decision. Id. at 484. back
433 U.S. at 473–84. back
South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 324 (1966). back

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