In Garner v. Board of Public Works of Los Angeles, 341 U.S. 716 (1951), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of an oath and an accompanying affidavit that the City of Los Angeles required of its employees against charges that it violated several constitutional provisions, including First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and association.
The oath in question required that employees affirm that they did not then “advise, advocate or teach” or belong to organizations that taught the forceful overthrow of the U.S. government and that they had not for the last five years. Because the city had adopted a similar ordinance that applied five years previously, Justice Tom C. Clark, joined by four other justices, denied that the law was an ex post facto, or retroactive, criminal law. He argued that it was not a bill of attainder—a legislative, rather than a judicial punishment— because it related to professional standards of employment rather than being chiefly punitivein nature. Clark further saved the oath from impermissibly impinging on freedom of speech and association by reading it so that it only applied to knowing membership in subversive organizations.
Four justices wrote separate dissents. Justice Felix Frankfurter’s partial dissent argued that there was inadequate justification for believing that employees knew when they refused to take the oath that it prescribed only knowing membership. Justice Harold H. Burton’s partial dissent focused on what he believed to be the improper retrospective application of the oath. Justice Hugo L. Black’s dissent highlighted his view that the decision conflicted with past judicial precedents, and Justice William O. Douglas argued that the case contradicted past precedents dealing with test oaths and constituted an ex post facto law as well as a bill of attainder.
This Garner ruling resembled contemporary decisions in Adler v. Board of Education (1952) and Wieman v. Updegraff (1952) in upholding oaths only when it is clear that employees understand that they apply only to knowing membership in groups advocating violent overthrow of the government.Send Feedback on this article