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In the years following World War II, the United States government, as well as many of the states, including California, enacted an almost endless stream of laws designed to weed out, isolate, sanction, and punish anyone thought to share any ideas or associations that could be labeled subversive. This historical period, called the “American inquisition,” saw the enactment and enforcement of a wide variety of laws meant to accomplish these purposes. People were subject to criminal prosecution for their beliefs, associations or advocacy; denial of, or discharge from, employment; denial of government benefits or licenses; and exclusion from publicly funded housing. One of the many tools used to identify or uncover suspected subversives was to extract oaths of loyalty that normally required the target to disclaim, or admit, to any belief, advocacy or association—past, present, or future— that the government deemed suspicious. Both the United States Supreme Court and the California Supreme Court, rendered many decisions concerning the validity of these “loyalty oaths.” In Steinmetz v. California State Board of Education, Justice Jesse Carter said in his dissent that “even if one should be so caught up in the hysteria of our times that he fails to perceive the intrinsic unconstitutionality of [this oath statute], he still must recognize the fact that the decision of the majority . . . is erroneous.” In an earlier case Justice Carter observed, also in dissent, that the majority opinion brought “into sharp focus the loyalty oath hysteria which has pervaded this country and particularly this state during the past five or six years.”


Chapter 4 in “The Great Dissents of the 'Lone Dissenter': Justice Jesse W. Carter's Twenty Tumultuous Years on the California Supreme Court,” Oppenheimer, David & Allan Brotsky, eds. (Carolina Academic Press, 2010). Posted with permission from Carolina Academic Press. All rights reserved.