The Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Litigation

On March 1, 1967, the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 307 to 116 refused to seat Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the re-elected African-American Congressman from Harlem, censured him, fined him $25,000, took away his seniority and declared his seat vacant. The grounds were that he had engaged in conduct unbecoming a Congressman: he had refused to pay a libel judgment ordered by a New York state court, had refused to return to his district except on Sunday in order to avoid service of legal process in that case, had misappropriated congressional travel funds and illegally had paid his wife a congressional staff salary for work she had not done.[1]

Soon thereafter Powell along with 13 of his constituents commenced a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to invalidate his exclusion.  The defendants were John McCormack, who was the Speaker of the House, five other House members and three of its staff.  The complaint alleged that the exclusion violated Powell’s constitutional rights: Powell satisfied the constitutional qualifications for membership (age, citizenship and residency) and the exclusion allegedly was based upon his race and color and thereby violated his rights under the Fifth, Thirteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution.[2]

Powell’s lawyers were William Kunstler, a famous civil rights lawyer;[3] Arthur Kinoy, another prominent civil rights lawyer and Rutgers Law School Professor;[4] Herbert Reid, another civil rights lawyer and Howard Law School Professor;[5] and others.

The House decided that it did not want the Lyndon Johnson Administration’s Justice Department to defend the House’s leadership because of concern that political considerations would prevent the Department from vigorously asserting what the House believed to be its full constitutional prerogatives. Instead, the House took the recommendation of Emmanuel Celler, the Brooklyn Congressman and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, to hire as its attorney, Bruce Bromley, a partner in the New York City law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore.[6]

Bromley was a graduate of the University of Michigan and the Harvard Law School. He was a lawyer with the Cravath firm for over 50 years with one interruption. In January 1949, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey, who had been the unsuccessful Republican presidential candidate the prior year, appointed Bromley to New York’s highest court (the Court of Appeals), but in November 1949, Bromley lost the election for a full term. Although he served on the bench for less than a year, thereafter he was always referred to as “Judge Bromley.” While at Cravath, he was the lead lawyer in successful representation of IBM, General Motors and other major corporations.[7]

For the Powell case, Bromley assembled a team of Cravath lawyers to work on the case, including yours truly. I do not recall what issues I worked on and now wish I had kept a journal about my involvement in this case to refresh my recollection. I do remember that another Cravath associate attorney and member of the team, Dorsey D. Ellis, Jr., was an amateur legal historian and was the primary draftsman of an appendix to the eventual Supreme Court brief that discussed the legislative common law of the British House of Commons and the early state legislatures regarding exclusion and expulsion of members of legislatures.[8] Another Cravath associate on the team, Jay Gerber, recently told me that he remembers the issues on which he worked.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.[9]  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the dismissal, but on different grounds. It held that the federal courts had subject-matter jurisdiction, but that case was not justiciable, i.e, it was not appropriate for judicial relief because of the separation of powers.[10] The case then went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Before the Supreme Court argument, the other members of the Cravath team and I went to Washington several days ahead of time to prepare for the argument and to consult with Cravath’s Washington allies and former partners: Lloyd Cutler, who subsequently was White House Counsel for Presidents Carter and Clinton,[11] and John Pickering.[12] Cravath also brought the lawyers’ spouses to Washington on the Sunday before the oral argument in the Supreme Court so that they could watch the proceedings the next day. My wife was on a plane from New York City that Sunday with none other than Congressman Powell.

Although the House’s side had won in the lower federal courts, there were no guarantees that it would prevail in the U.S. Supreme Court. The House was asserting that its power under Article I, Section 5(1) of the Constitution to “be the Judge of the . . . Qualifications of its own members” was an implicit exception from the Article III “judicial Power of the United States [that was] vested in [the Supreme Court]” and the lower federal courts. Thus, the House argued, no federal court had the power to do anything in this case. As a result, it was anticipated that Chief Justice Earl Warren might well ask Judge Bromley in oral argument whether he was claiming that if the House or the Senate hypothetically were to exclude or expel five or six black members-elect in succession that the Supreme Court could do nothing. The answer to this hypothetical question was clearly “yes.”

At the oral argument, as I recall, the Chief Justice in fact asked that question. Bromley’s responded in essence that yes, the Court could do nothing, but that there was no reason to suspect that the House or the Senate might do such a thing and that there was a political remedy by the voters’ re-electing the same people. The Chief Justice and Bromley then got into a colloquy as to which branch of the federal government had the “final” say regarding the Constitution. Bromley said in very limited areas, each house of the Congress had the “final say:” impeachment and removal of federal officials and judging the qualifications of its members. Jay Gerber recalls that the Chief Justice almost fell out of his chair at that answer.

In June 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court, 7 to 1, reversed the dismissal of the lawsuit. The majority opinion by the Chief Justice held that the federal courts had jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case and that it was justiciable; that it did not constitute a political question that pitted one branch of government against another. Rather, it required “no more than an interpretation of the Constitution” by the Supreme Court.[13]

The majority opinion stated that while the House of Representatives was the sole judge of its members’ qualifications (U.S. Const., Art. I, § 5, cl. 1), the House did not have the power to develop qualifications other than those specified in the Constitution: election certificate, at least 25 years of age, U.S. citizen for at least seven years and an inhabitant of the state in which he or she was elected at the time of election (Art. I, § 2. Cls, 1, 2).

In addition, the Court’s majority opinion noted that while the Constitution states (Art. I, § 5, Cl. 2),”Each House [of Congress] shall be the Judge of the . . . Qualifications of its own Members,” the Constitution  immediately states that each “House may . . . with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.” The Court, therefore, held that the process leading to the expulsion of a Member, duly sworn and enrolled upon the body’s rolls, was the only constitutional method for a House to give effect to its power to determine the qualifications of its members. The House did not follow this procedure with respect to Congressman Powell. Therefore, he was entitled to a declaratory judgment that he had been unlawfully excluded from the Congress.

In the meantime, Powell had won the May 1967 special election to fill his congressional seat, but did not attempt to be seated.  He then won the next regular election in November 1968 and was seated in the House in January 1969 (approximately five months before the Supreme Court decision) subject to the $25,000 fine and loss of seniority. The next year, however, Powell lost the 1970 Democratic primary election to Charles Rangel and failed to qualify to be on the general election ballot.[14]

Powell was a member of a notable Harlem family. His father, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., was Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem (1908-36) before being succeeded by Powell, Jr., his only son (1937-71).[15] Powell. Jr.’s older son, Adam Clayton Powell, III, was a journalist and media executive,[16] and Powell, Jr.’s younger son, Adam Clayton Powell IV, is a New York State legislator who lost the 2010 Democratic primary election for Congress to the incumbent, Charles Rangel.[17]

Powell, Jr. died in 1972 at age 62.


[1]  Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 489-93 (1969); Wikipedia, Powell v. McCormack, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Powell_v._McCormack.

[2]  Powell v. McCormack, 266 F. Supp. 354 (D.C. DC. 1967).

[3]  Wikipedia, William Kunstler, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Kunstler.

[4]  Wikipedia, Arthur Kinoy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Kinoy.

[5]  Ravo, Herbert O. Reid, Sr., 75, Lawyer Who Taught Many Black Leaders, N.Y. Times (June 19, 1991).

[6]  Wikipedia, Bruce Bromley, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Bromley.

[7] Wikipedia, Bruce Bromley, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Bromley.

[8]  After Cravath, “Dan” Ellis became a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa School of Law and then Professor, Dean and eventually Dean Emeritus and William R. Orthwein Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Washington in St. Louis School of Law. (Washington University in St. Louis, Dorsey Ellis, http://news.wustl.edu/people/Pages/DorseyEllis.aspx.

[9]  Powell v. McCormack, 266 F. Supp. 354 (D.C. D.C. 1967).

[10]  Powell v. McCormack, 395 F.2d 577 (D.C. Cir. 1968).

[11]  Wikipedia, Lloyd Cutler, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lloyd_Cutler.

[12]  Wikipedia, John H. Pickering, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_H._Pickering.

[13]  Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486 (1969).

[14]  Wikipedia, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clayton_Powell,_Jr.; Biographical Dictionary of the United States Congress, “Powell, Adam Clayton, Jr.,” http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=p000477

[15] Wikipedia, Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clayton_Powell,_Sr.; Abyssinian Baptist Church, History, http://www.abyssinian.org/about-us/history/.

[16]  Wikipedia, Adam Clayton Powell III, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clayton_Powell_III.

[17]  Wikipedia, Adam Clayton Powell IV (Politician),  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clayton_Powell_IV_(politician).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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