State Court Defiance and the Limits of Supreme Court Authority: Williams V. Georgia Revisited

Article excerpt

CONTENTS

  I. INTRODUCTION                                                     1424
 II. THE CASE OF AUBRY WILLIAMS                                       1426
     A. White Cards and Yellow Cards                                  1426
     B. The Certiorari Petition: From Two-and-a-Half to Four Votes    1432
     C. Oral Argument                                                 1437
     D. "A Smelly Situation": Harlan's Solution                       1442
     E. The Court in Conference: "Fixing It Up Burglary Proof"        1444
     F. The U.S. Supreme Court's Formal Pronouncement                 1449
        1. The Majority Opinion                                       1449
        2. The Two Dissenting Opinions                                1452
     G. The Message from Georgia: Go to Hell                          1456
     H. Back to the U.S. Supreme Court: The 1955 Term                 1459
III. THE CONSEQUENCES OF Williams v. GEORGIA                          1465
     A. The Individual Justices' Votes                                1465
     B. The Southern Response to Williams                             1468
     C. The Court's Southern Strategy                                 1472
     D. Williams and the Failure of the Court's Southern Strategy     1478
EPILOGUE                                                              1480

Fiat Justitia Ruat Caelum

--Do Justice Though The Heavens Fall. Inscription above the bench of the Georgia Supreme Court.

I. INTRODUCTION

States have on many occasions refused to comply with United States Supreme Court decisions; rarely, however, have they overtly defied the Court.(1) It is even more unusual for such defiance to come from the state judiciary, the branch of government most closely tied to the federal courts. In Williams v. Georgia,(2) however, a state supreme court bluntly refused to recognize the U.S. Supreme Court's prior finding of jurisdiction, precipitating one of the most remarkable confrontations between state and federal judges in the annals of American justice.

Aubry Williams, a black man, was accused of having murdered a white liquor store clerk in downtown Atlanta in 1952. He was tried, convicted, and condemned by a jury that had been selected using procedures that all parties later agreed were racially discriminatory and unconstitutional. The Georgia Supreme Court, however, refused to grant a new trial, ruling that Williams had irrevocably waived his constitutional rights by failing to assert them in a timely fashion.

On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction and remanded the case, stating that Williams was entitled to a new trial and hinting that if the state court refused to order one, the U.S. Supreme Court would do so as a matter of federal constitutional law. On remand, a unanimous Georgia Supreme Court angrily reaffirmed its earlier decision. In an extraordinary opinion, it held that the U.S. Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to consider the case. The state court declared that it was not bound by any federal court judgment on the matter and implied that any further federal attempts to interfere in the case would be ignored. Despite this direct challenge to its authority, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant certiorari a second time and Aubry Williams was executed.

To the extent that this case is remembered at all, it is generally regarded as an unfortunate but historically insignificant footnote from the early years of the Civil Rights movement.(3) This Article challenges that perception. Far from inconsequential, Williams represented a critical moment in the Warren Court's struggle to undo the effects of Jim Crow in the South.

The first part of this Article presents a complete narrative of Williams v. Georgia, using unpublished primary sources (Georgia and U.S. Supreme Court archival materials, as well as numerous interviews with former U. …