346 U.S. 273 (1953), argued 18 June 1953, decided 19 June 1953 by vote of 6 to 3; Vinson for the Court, Black, Douglas, and Frankfurter in dissent. In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of conspiring to violate the Espionage Act of 1917 by transmitting secret atomic and other military information to the Soviet Union. The Rosenbergs’ actions relating to atomic secrets occurred before enactment of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, but other aspects of the conspiracy continued until 1950. The Rosenbergs were sentenced to death. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment, and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. Several subsequent collateral attacks on the judgment were unsuccessful.
In 1953, counsel for a “next friend” of the Rosenbergs, without their authorization, argued that the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 had superseded the Espionage Act of 1917 and rendered the district court powerless to impose a death sentence without recommendation by a jury. Holding that this claim presented a substantial question of law, Justice William O. Douglas granted a stay of execution. Two days later, the Court vacated the stay on the ground that the Atomic Energy Act did not displace the penalties of the Espionage Act. The Court further concluded that, since most of the activities forming the basis of the conviction had been committed prior to the passage of the Atomic Energy Act, the alleged inconsistency of its penalty provisions with those of the Espionage Act was irrelevant. The dissenting justices maintained that the stay should not be vacated without a full review of the substantive issue. The Rosenbergs were executed on the day of this decision.