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Lovett, United States v.


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328 U.S. 303 (1946), argued 3 and 6 May 1946, decided 3 June 1946 by vote of 8 to 0; Black for the Court, Frankfurter, joined by Reed, concurring, Jackson not participating. The Bill of Attainder Clauses of Article I of the Constitution have been interpreted broadly to prohibit any legislative act, by Congress or a state legislature, that inflicts punishment on a designated individual without a judicial trial. Historically, the English experience and abuses after the Revolution made this device unpopular. Functionally, such special acts reflect the general mistrust of retroactive legislation and violate separation of powers.

The Lovett decision came during the cold war hysteria and McCarthy-era purges. Congress enacted a statute providing that no appropriated funds could be paid as salary to Lovett and two other named federal employees found to be disloyal. The Court ruled that this amounted to a bill of attainder.

The Court has struck down only three other statutes as forbidden bills of attainder: a state law that required clergy to take an oath that they had never aided the Confederacy; a congressional enactment that required a similar oath as a condition to practice law in federal courts; and a federal statute making it a crime for a member of the Communist party to serve as an officer of a labor union.

In his autobiography All Our Years (1948), Robert Morss Lovett claimed for the three “a place in history in spite of ourselves” and described the outcome as an occasion when “government triumphed over hate” (pp. 308–309). The decision stilled further congressional attempts to punish people by name in statutes.

Thomas E. Baker

Subjects: Law.


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