Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227 (1940)

2012-02-09 09:32:33

Torturing a man to confess a crime is an ancient evil. Subtler pressures can also break a man. Under the Fifth Amendment, Bram v. United States, and the Fourteenth Amendment, the Constitution outlaws the use of mental pressure or physical force to get a confession. ‘‘And they who have suffered most from secret and dictatorial proceedings have almost always been the poor, the ignorant, the numerically weak, the friendless, and the powerless.’’ Justice Black’s steel prose in Chambers v. Florida was extolled by Justice Frankfurter as ‘‘One of the enduring utterances in the history of the Supreme Court and in the annals of human freedom.’’

The petitioners were four ‘‘ignorant young colored tenant farmers’’ arrested without a warrant on suspicion of having robbed and murdered an elderly white man. The community was outraged. The sheriff rounded up a group of blacks, locked them in jail, and subjected them to relentless questioning for a week on the fourth floor of the county jail. One was told ‘‘if I didn’t come across I would never see the sun rise.’’ After a concluding all-night session, Chambers and the other petitioners gave their ‘‘sunrise confessions.’’

Justice Black reversed the Florida Supreme Court and petitioners’ death sentences. Chambers is half way between Hughes’s due process condemnation of Coerced Confessions in Brown v. Mississippi (1936) and Black’s later dissent in Adamson v. California (1947). Thus in Chambers Black speaks of ‘‘fundamental standards of procedure in criminal trials’’ and one of those fundamentals, according to Hugo Black, is the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against selfincrimination. At the time of Chambers, the Supreme Court had not yet come around to Justice Black’s view; Twining v. New Jersey (1908) stood in the way. The ‘‘current of opinion’’ mentioned in a careful footnote in Chambers ‘‘—that the Fourteenth Amendment was intended to make secure against state invasion all the rights, privileges and immunities protected from federal invasion by the Bill of Rights’’—was Hugo Black’s own.

Justice Black did something unprecedented in 1968, appearing on national television. With great emotion, Justice Black read from the closing part of his opinion in Chambers v. Florida:

Under our constitutional system, courts stand against any winds that blow as havens of refuge for those who might otherwise suffer because they are helpless, weak, outnumbered, or because they are non-conforming victims of prejudice and public excitement. Due process of law, preserved for all by our Constitution, commands that no such practice as that disclosed by this record shall send any accused to his death. No higher duty, no more solemn responsibility rests upon this Court, than that of translating into living law and maintaining this constitutional shield deliberately planned and inscribed for the benefit of every human being subject to our Constitution—of whatever race, creed or persuasion.

‘‘And I think if it’s enforced that way, this can be and is bound to be the best Constitution in the world.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Baier, Paul R. ‘‘Introduction to Hugo Black: A Memorial Portrait.’’ Yearbook Supreme Court Historical Society (1982): 72–73
  • Ball, Howard. Hugo L. Black: Cold Steel Warrior. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996
  • Black, Elizabeth S. ‘‘Hugo Black: A Memorial Portrait.’’ Yearbook Supreme Court Historical Society (1982): 73–94
  • Black, Hugo L., and Elizabeth Black. Mr. Justice and Mrs. Black. New York: Random House, 1986
  • Frank, John P. Mr. Justice Black: The Man and His Opinions. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949
  • ‘‘Justice Black and the Bill of Rights,’’ Interview by Eric Sevareid and Martin Agronsky, CBS News Special, December 3, 1968 (Burton Benjamin producer), transcript published in Southwestern University Law Review 9, no. 4 (1977): 937–951
  • Newman, Roger K. Hugo Black: A Biography. New York: Pantheon, 1994; Second Edition, New York, Fordham University Press, 1997

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46 (1947) 
  • Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936) 
  • Bram v. United States, 168 U.S. 532 (1897) 
  • Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1 (1964) 
  • Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U.S. 78 (1908) 

See also Bill of Rights: Structure; Brown v. Mississippi, 279 U.S. 278 (1936); Coerced Confessions/Police Interrogation; Due Process; Fourteenth Amendment; Frankfurter, Felix; Hughes Court; Hughes, Charles Evans; Ku Klux Klan; Lincoln, Abraham; Self-incrimination (V): Historical Background; Self-incrimination: Miranda and Evolution