By YVONNE FRENCH
The U.S. Supreme Court trampled property rights during World War II, citing wartime necessity.
So suggested James Ely Feb. 9 in the second lecture in a series on the Supreme Court during World War II.
A series of six lectures is being sponsored by the Friends of the Law Library of Congress and the Supreme Court Historical Society.
The lecture was held in the newly renovated Northwest Curtain, off the Jefferson Building's Great Hall. About 150 Library staffers, judges, legal scholars and groups of Washington attorneys attended.
In opening remarks, Deputy Librarian of Congress Hiram L. Davis noted the law collection at the Library is the largest in the world. Looking back over the years, he praised Chief Justice Harlan Fiske Stone for testifying before Congress to increase the Law Library's budget appropriation, resulting in a jump from $3,000 to $50,000 in fiscal 1931.
Dr. Davis also noted that the Library is fortunate to have the papers of many Supreme Court j justices.
"The papers of the Justices are among the most noteworthy in our care at the Library of Congress. Although our holdings for the Stone court are particularly rich, the collections of 37 justices and chief justices make the Library a unique setting for the study of American constitutional history," Dr. Davis said.
Mr. Ely was introduced by Associate Justice Byron White, a now-retired Kennedy appointee. Justice White explained that the government has the right to seize property to build railroads, roads, dams, military bases and public buildings. In wartime, it also can seize natural resources and their means of production if they are deemed critical to the war effort, he said.
According to Mr. Ely, the Supreme Court virtually ignored property rights during World War II. He listed a number of cases, including several springing from what he called "the most extensive price control scheme in American history," the Emergency Price Control Act.
He also listed cases of "takings" ranging from invasion of airspace by the armed services over a farmer's barn to the closing of a California gold mine because it was not essential to the war effort.
"The Supreme Court relied on war as an all-purpose justification. It took a hands-off approach and rarely questioned political branches of government or their actions in wartime," he said.
Mr. Ely is a professor of law and history at Vanderbilt University. He is author of The Guardian of Every Other Right: A Constitutional History of Property Rights.
His extensive survey of property rights cases in which the high court found in favor of the government was the basis of his lecture. He concluded that the court was influenced by the mood of the country at the time: self-sacrifice in the interest of the war effort.
"The prevailing sentiment worked its way into judicial decisions," Mr. Ely said. "Property rights paled when compared to the sacrifices of other institutions," such as businesses, unions and organized groups.
Mr. Ely said the court's decisions had the effect of creating a rift in the Constitution by holding First Amendment rights higher than property rights, and therefore more worthy of protection.
Calling it a "double standard of the Constitution," Mr. Ely said, based on his research, "it has no basis in text or the views of the framers."
After the lecture, attendees viewed a collection of original documents of Supreme Court justices from the Manuscript Division assembled by David Wigdor, assistant chief of the Manuscript Division.
The series of manuscripts from the justices' personal papers document the evolution of a dissenting opinion, that of Justice Wiley Rutledge in the 1944 case of Yakus v. U.S., in which the Court sustained Emergency Price Control Act of 1942. The Act had controversial jurisdictional arrangements, wrote Dr. Wigdor in the display captions. For example, the Office of Price Administration was given congressional power; and state and federal courts were charged with civil and criminal enforcement but were not allowed to consider the underlying orders or regulation. That job was left up to the Emergency Court of Appeals, something Justice Rutledge believed "combined elements which violated both due process and judicial authority."
A future lecture, "First Amendment and Civil Liberties in World War II," will be held at 6 p.m. April 27 in the Great Hall of the Library's Jefferson Building. Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy will introduce Professor Anthony Freyer of the University of Alabama.
Tickets are $25 a person. For reservations, call (202) 543-0400.