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In fulfillment of their obligation under 2 U.S.C.S. § 192, the courts must accord to defendants every right that is guaranteed to defendants in all criminal cases. Among these is the right to have available, through a sufficiently precise statute, information revealing the standard of criminality before the commission of the alleged offense. Applied to persons prosecuted under § 192, this raises a special problem in that the statute defines the crime as refusal to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry. Part of the standard of criminality, therefore, is the pertinency of the questions propounded to the witness.
Petitioner, a union officer appearing as a witness before a subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, refused to answer questions as to past Communist Party membership of certain persons, objecting to the questions on the ground of lack of pertinency to the subject under inquiry by the subcommittee. In a prosecution in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, he was convicted of violating 2 U.S.C. § 192, the statute providing for criminal punishment of witnesses before congressional committees who refused to answer any question pertinent to the question under inquiry, and the conviction was affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Under the circumstances, could the petitioner be held liable for violating 2 U.S.C. § 192?
The Court noted that in order to support a conviction under 2 U.S.C. § 192, a congressional investigating committee must, upon objection of a witness on the grounds of pertinency, state for the record the subject under inquiry at that time and the manner in which the propounded questions were pertinent thereto. In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that no aid was given to define the question under inquiry. After examining the indicia of the subject matter, which were broad and indefinite, the Court remained unenlightened as to the subject to which the questions asked petitioner were pertinent. The Court determined that if the point was that obscure after trial and appeal, it was not adequately revealed to petitioner when he had to decide at his peril whether or not to answer. Fundamental fairness demanded that no witness be compelled to make such a determination with so little guidance. Unless the subject matter had been made to appear with indisputable clarity, it was the duty of the investigative body, upon petitioner's objection on grounds of pertinence, to state for the record the subject and the manner in which the propounded questions were pertinent.