A Glimpse into the Sedition Case of 1944

Today’s blogger is Meghan Milam, a summer 2013 intern in the Archives I Reference Section who worked with court records.

Rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are by no means clearly defined. Contentious, news-worthy cases like those involving Pfc. Manning or Edward Snowden bring the debate into the broader public. The phrase “clear and present danger” is used and one can wonder what exactly it means. The Staff of the National Archives Regional Archives System wrote a paper in 1991 describing the usefulness of the records of lower federal courts for looking at how the First Amendment has been upheld, or not upheld. They argue that “the largest segment of First Amendment cases in the regional archives concerns prosecutions under the Alien Registration Act or Smith Act, passed in 1940, which made it a criminal offense to advocate the forceful overthrow of the government.[1]” When working in the lower federal court records, even the tedious work of data entry, you never know what you might stumble across.

While creating a database of Miscellaneous Actions of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, 1941-1951[2], I noticed the names of petitioners, attorneys, and one Honorable Edward C. Eicher as respondent, coming up again and again. Not only were names repeating, but the type of petition was all the same: writ of mandamus. This type of writ comes from a superior court and tells an inferior court to do, or not do, a certain act.[3] A preliminary Internet search revealed the individuals from the docket were all defendants in a sedition trial from 1944: United States v. McWilliams et al.

Officially a case of the District Court of the District of Columbia[4], the key players showed up in the court docket of the U.S. Court of Appeals because of the pleas for mandamus. It caught my eye that on July 5th of 1944, James J. Laughlin, whose name appears repeatedly as an attorney for petitioners to the Court of Appeals, appears as a petitioner himself for a writ of mandamus. The respondent is yet again Justice Edward C. Eicher.

The Court of Appeals docket reveals some of the courtroom drama of this largely forgotten trial of the District Court. According to news sources at the time, Justice Eicher kicked Laughlin out of the trial for “tactics designed to delay and obstruct the administration of justice,[5]” and Laughlin was seeking the authority of a higher court to force Eicher to revoke his decision. Laughlin had, in fact, filed an impeachment petition with the House Speaker Sam Rayburn in an effort to have Eicher removed from the trial (see image below).[6] The docket tells that three attorneys, O. John Rogge, Joseph W. Burns, and Philip R. Miller responded as Eicher’s defense.

[Click on the image below to enlarge.]

Record Group 276 (Records of the United States Court of Appeals); Miscellaneous Jurisdiction Case Files, 1941-1975 (NARA Online Identifier  1128311); Document: Copy of the first page of James J Laughlin’s petition for the impeachment of Justice Eicher.

I eventually moved from the docket to the case files of the District Court, and as I sifted through the papers of the trial, what emerged was a messy case of widely varied defendants—from Nazi sympathizers to intellectuals like Lawrence Dennis—being indicted under the Smith Act, as conspiring to “impair the loyalty of the armed forces…and that this was done as part of a gigantic conspiracy with German and Nazi officials whose public program was to destroy all democratic governments and replace them by Nazi governments.[7]” The sheer number of defendants and their lawyers alone would have created chaos in the courtroom, but the tactics of lawyers like James J. Laughlin led to a long and drawn-out trial.

This sedition case of 1944 came to an abrupt halt with the death of Justice Eicher on November 30th, 1944. With Eicher’s death, the case was inevitably declared a mistrial.[8] What I find compelling is that through the simple recordings of the U.S. Court of Appeals docket, a whole world opens up and a story is told. It not only paints details into a picture of the judicial climate of the Roosevelt administration during the early 1940s and the specifics of First Amendment interpretations at the time, but also gives clues that point to attorney behavior and strategies during these sedition indictments. Many clues and questions are bundled into a handful of lines in a 69 year old court docket.

[1] Staff of the National Archives Regional Archives System. “Fighting Words: Finding the First Amendment in Lower Federal Court Records.” Organization of American Historians 78.1 (1991): 240-48.  JSTOR. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.

[2] Record Group 276, Records of the United States Court of Appeals, Entry 15, Miscellaneous Actions, 1941-1951.

[3] Black, Henry Campbell. Law Dictionary; Definition of the Terms and Phrases of American and English Jurisprudence, Ancient and Modern, with Guide to Pronunciation. St. Paul: West, 1951. 1113. Print.

[4] Record Group 21, Records of the District Court of the District of Columbia, Entry 77, United States vs. McWilliams et al.

[5] Chinn, James E. “Eicher Fights Laughlin Plea for Mandamus.” The Washington Post 8 July 1944: 3. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 25 July 2013.


[6] Chinn, James E. “Eicher Ousts Laughlin From Sedition Trial. ” The Washington Post 6 July 1944: 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 1 August 2013.

[7] “The Sedition Trial: A Study in Delay and Obstruction.” The University of Chicago Law Review 15.3 (1948): 691-702.  JSTOR. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.

[8] “Sedition Case Mistrial Looms After Justice Eicher Dies.” The Washington Post 1 December 1944: 1. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Web. 25 July 2013.