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Jenner-Butler bill

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Description: Measure designed to curtail the Supreme Court's power to protect the constitutional rights of alleged political subversives.


Significance: The bill represents the high-water mark of widespread efforts by congressional conservatives during the late 1950's to weaken the Court.


The Jenner-Butler bill was one of scores of measures sponsored by conservative members of Congress during 1957-1958 to curtail the Supreme Court's power in the wake of the Court's controversial decisions on racial desegregation and the protection of the procedural rights of persons charged with common crimes and political subversion. Unlike other measures, the Jenner-Butler bill reached a floor vote in the Senate, where it was defeated in August, 1958, by the relatively narrow margin of forty-nine to forty-one after vigorous efforts by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson to persuade wavering Democratic colleagues to oppose it. The defeat of the measure stemmed the tide of congressional efforts to weaken the Court. The Jenner-Butler bill would have deprived the Court of appellate jurisdiction over cases involving state bar admissions, a response to the Court's rulings reversing the denial of admission to persons suspected of left-wing political sympathies in Schware v. Board of Bar Examiners of the State of New Mexico (1957) and Konigsberg v. State Bar of California (1957). The bill also would have reversed limitations on the investigatory powers of congressional committees that the Court had imposed in Watkins v. United States (1957). Another provision would have restored the full scope of forty-three state sedition laws that the Court had limited in Pennsylvania v. Nelson (1956), and another part would have rewritten legislation against the Communist Party contained in the Smith Act of 1940 to respond to objections that the Court had raised in Yates v. United States (1957).