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Pennsylvania v. Nelson


The outcome inNelson epitomized, for some, the ultra-liberalism of the Court headed by Chief Justice Warren. Continual efforts of conservatives to pass legislation to overturn the decision were blocked.

Steve Nelson was an acknowledged member of the Communist Party. He was convicted in state court of violating the Pennsylvania Sedition Act, which outlawed subversive organizations. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail and a fine of $10,000, plus court costs. The superior court affirmed this decision, but on appeal, it was overturned by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court . This outcome was based on a determination that there was no evidence presented at trial that triggered the state antisedition law. Neither Nelson nor the Communist Party advocated overthrow of the government of Pennsylvania. Instead, said the state supreme court, Nelson had only threatened the federal government, thus violating the federal antisedition statute known as the Smith Act of 1940.

Pennsylvania petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for review of this decision, which was based on the notion of pre-emption, the rule stating that when a federal law occupies a given field, it prevails over conflicting state legislation. The Supreme Court agreed. Writing for the six-member majority, Chief Justice Warren stated that:

Since we find that Congress has occupied the field to the exclusion of parallel state legislation, that the dominant interest of the Federal Government precludes state intervention, and that administration of state Acts would conflict with the operation of the federal plan, we are convinced that the decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is unassailable.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1954 to 1962Pennsylvania v. Nelson - Significance, Cold Warriors Outraged By Court's Decision In Favor Of Communist Party Leader