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Pennsylvania v. Nelson


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350 U.S. 497 (1956), argued 15–16 Nov. 1955, decided 2 Apr. 1956 by vote of 6 to 3; Warren for the Court, Reed, joined by Burton and Minton, in dissent. During its 1955 term, the Supreme Court began to withdraw from its previous cold war practice of sustaining state and federal anticommunist legislation. Until hostile congressional reaction led a majority to return to self-restraint in internal security matters for the remainder of the 1950s, the Court relied on procedural or statutory grounds to offer some judicial protection to radical dissenters.

In what was probably the most prominent cold war decision of that term, the Court affirmed a judgment of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that had reversed the conviction of Steve Nelson, a Communist party leader, under the state's antisedition law. Like the state court, the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal legislation (including the Smith Act of 1940) had occupied the field of preventing overthrow of the national government. Thus, state laws on this subject were excluded, the Court said, even though Congress had never expressed any such intention. The Court concluded that Congress had implicitly occupied the field because of the volume and pervasiveness of federal antisubversive legislation, because of the dominant interest of the federal government in protecting itself against overthrow, and because enforcement of state laws could undercut the effectiveness of federal legislation. A powerful congressional effort to overturn this decision ultimately failed when it became tied to proposed general legislation completely barring implied federal exclusion of state laws, a proposal that generated strong political opposition.

Dean Alfange, Jr.

Subjects: Law.


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