1954 June 24

New York State Bar Association: Disbar Members of Subversive Organizations


A special committee of the New York State Bar Association on this day recommended that any attorney who remained a member of an organization designated as “subversive” should be automatically disbarred. The committee also recommended that any attorney who invoked the Fifth Amendment before an investigative body, such as the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), be disbarred. The committee warned that there may be a “much greater” number of subversive lawyers in the state than anyone believed, and that they posed a “threat to our institutions.”

In 1954 a national controversy erupted over the Fifth Amendment, because so many people had refused to answer questions before HUAC and other investigations into political beliefs and associations. This practice gave rise to the label “Fifth Amendment Communists” for people who did so. The Dean of Harvard Law School defended the historic privilege of protection against self-protection on February 5, 1954. The result of the controversy over the Fifth Amendment was a federal immunity law, passed on August 20, 1954, which allowed investigators to grant immunity to uncooperative witnesses and then compel them to testify about the events under investigation.

It was a measure of the intensity of the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War that a group such as the New York State Bar Association should proposed disbarring a lawyer for exercising one of the most important rights ensured by American law.

Read about the Fifth Amendment controversy in the 1950s: Erwin N. Griswold, The 5th Amendment Today: Three Speeches (1955)

Learn more about the ACLU in the Cold War and other Times of National Crisis: https://www.aclu.org/aclu-history-rooting-out-subversives-paranoia-and-patriotism-mccarthy-era

Learn more: Leonard Levy, Origins of the Fifth Amendment: The Right Against Self-incrimination (1968)

Learn more about HUAChttp://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/huac

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