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Political Trials


Thomas Emerson


What is a political trial? There have not been many attempts to explain or define the concept. By far the best treatment of the subject is by Otto Kirchheimer in a book titled Political Justice. Yet even Kirchheimer is not entirely clear about what a political trial is: he defines it as a judicial trial which is directly involved with the struggle for political power. That is rather vague. Several weeks ago, Justice Douglas, in a concurring opinion, referred to political trials-one of the first justices ever to mention the term-but he did not explain what they were. Instead, he gave five examples from American history of what he considered to be political trials. Those were: the Haymarket trial; the Debs trial in connecticut with the Pullman strike; the Mooney-Billings case; the Sacco-Vanzetti trial; and the Smith Act prosecution of Dennis. I think that we would probably all agree that those were political trials. Let me, however, go a little beyond the examples and indicate some of the situations in which a political trial occurs.

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