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Gompers v. United States

The Provisions Of The Constitution Are Not Mathematical Formulas

In 1914, the Supreme Court in Gompers v. United States looked again at the contempt charges brought against Gompers. Considering the statute of limitations the Court noted that the injunction was made permanent on 23 March 1908. The statute of limitations states that "no person shall be prosecuted, tried, or punished for any offense not capital . . . unless the indictment is found or the information is instituted within three years next after such offense shall have been committed." Gompers treated these proceedings as beginning on 16 May 1911, when the inquiry began, thus barring contempts before 16 May 1908. Gompers also argued that the inquiry was only looking at violations of the preliminary injunction, which expired when the final decree took effect on 23 March 1908. Holmes countered that the report mentioned the final decree and acts later than 23 March and that the order to show cause referred to the injunctions, in the plural.

The charges against Gompers included rushing the publication of the American Federationist after he knew about the injunction but before it went into effect. Another charge involved referring to the judge as so far having transcended his authority that even court of appeals judges criticized him and that in such circumstances "it is the duty of the citizens to refuse obedience and to take whatever consequences may ensue."

Holmes noted that it had been argued that the contempts cannot be crimes because they are not within the protection of the Constitution and amendments giving a right to trial by jury. He responded that "the provisions of the Constitution are not mathematical formulas having their essence in their form; they are organic, living institutions transplanted from English soil. Their significance is vital, not formal; it is to be gathered not simply by taking the words and a dictionary, but by considering their origin and the line of their growth."

In discussing the meaning of the statute of limitations, Holmes noted that "the substantive portion of the section is that no person shall be tried for any offense . . . except within a certain time. Those words are of universal scope. What follows is a natural way of expressing that the proceedings must be begun within three years." Holmes stated that the power to punish for contempt must have some time limit and that limit should be three years. The majority of the Court voted to reverse the judgments against Gompers since they were based on offenses that could not be taken into consideration.

Gompers wrote in an editorial in the American Federationist that the Court had refused to rule on the great human issues involved in the case, which were free speech and free press. Instead the ideas were lost in a maze of legal technicalities. Gompers felt that since the judiciary would not reform the abuses of the injunction process, the reforms must be gotten by legislation. Through lobbying and campaigning, the AFL attempted the statutory abolition of the labor injunction. The Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914 appeared to prohibit federal courts from barring peaceful picketing or communicative activities connected with labor strikes or boycotts. Gompers felt the Clayton Antitrust Act would bring about a new order of human relations in industry and was fundamental to human liberty. However, the lower courts interpreted the deliberately vague language of the anti-injunction provisions so hostilely that no change came about.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Gompers v. United States - Significance, The Provisions Of The Constitution Are Not Mathematical Formulas, Impact, Samuel Gompers