Expulsion of Socialists from the New York Assembly (1920)
On January 7, 1920, less than a week after the Palmer Raids had swept and stunned the country, a new session of the New York State Assembly was called to order. The majority Republicans easily elected their candidate for the Speaker, Thaddeus C. Sweet and after opening day formalities the body took a brief recess. Back in session, Sweet declared: "The Chair directs the Sergeant-at-Arms to present before the Bar of the House Samuel A. DeWitt, Samuel Orr, Louis Waldman, Charles Solomon, and August Claessens," the Assembly's five Socialist members.
Sweet attacked the five, declaring they had been "elected on a platform that is absolutely inimical to the best interests of the state of New York and the United States." The Socialist Party, Sweet said, was "not truly a political party", but was rather "a membership organization admitting within its ranks aliens, enemy aliens, and minors." The party had denounced America's participation in the European war and had lent aid and comfort to Ludwig Martens, the "self-styled Soviet Ambassador and alien, who entered this country as a German in 1916." It had supported the revolutionaries in Germany, Austria, and Hungary, Sweet continued, and consorted with international Socialist parties close to the Communist International. Sweet concluded:
- It is every citizen's right to his day in court. If this house should adopt a resolution declaring your seat herein vacant, pending a hearing before a tribunal of this house, you will be given an opportunity to appear before such tribunal to prove your right to a seat in this legislative body, and upon the result of such hearing and the findings of the Assembly tribunal, your right to participate in the actions of this body will be determined.
The Assembly suspended the quintet by a vote of 140 to 6, with one Democrat supporting the Socialists. Civil libertarians and concerned citizens raised their voices to aid the suspended Socialists, and protest percolated throughout the press. The principal argument was that majority parties expelling elected members of minority parties from their councils set a dangerous precedent in a democracy. The battle culminated in a highly publicized trial in the Assembly, which dominated the body's activity from its opening on January 20, 1920, until its conclusion on March 11. Socialist Party leader and former 1917 New York City mayoral candidate Morris Hillquit served as chief counsel for the suspended Socialists, aided by party founder, and future Socialist Vice Presidential candidate, Seymour Stedman.
At the trial, Hillquit charged that Speaker Sweet had made a "specific, concrete, definite, affirmative declaration of guilt" of the five Assemblymen before they were ever charged with any offense. It was the chief accuser, Speaker Sweet, who also appointed the members of the Judiciary Committee to which the matter was referred. "Thus the accuser selects his own judges," Hillquit declared. Hillquit sought to remove for reasons of bias any members of the Judiciary Committee who had taken part in the activities of the Lusk Committee, the New York State Senate's anti-radicalism committee. Hillquit particularly challenged the presence of Assemblyman Louis Cuvillier, who had stated on the floor of the house the previous night words to the effect that "if the five accused Assemblymen are found guilty, they ought not to be expelled, but taken out and shot." The Assembly voted overwhelmingly for expulsion on April 1, 1920.
A special election was held September 16, 1920, to fill the five seats vacated by the Assembly, with each of the five expelled Socialists running for re-election against a "fusion" candidate representing the combined Republican and Democratic parties. All five Socialists were returned to office.
Three of the five, Waldman, Claessens, and Solomon, were again denied their seats after a contentious debate by votes of 90 to 45 on September 21, 1920. Orr and DeWitt, deemed less culpable than their peers by the earlier findings of the Judiciary Committee, were seated by votes of 87 to 48. In solidarity with their ousted colleagues, the pair refused to take their seats.
After the five seats were again vacated, Morris Hillquit expressed his disappointment at the "unconstitutional action" of the Assembly. However, Hillquit continued, "it will draw the issues clearer between the united Republican and Democratic parties representing arbitrary lawlessness, and the Socialist Party, which stood and stands for democratic and representative government."
The legislature attempted to prevent the election and seating of Socialists in the future by passing laws designed to exclude the Socialist Party from recognition as a political party and to alter the legislature's oath-taking procedures so that elected members could be excluded before being sworn. Governor Al Smith vetoed the legislation.
- Louis Waldman, Albany: The Crisis in Government: The History of the Suspension, Trial and Expulsion from the New York State Legislature in 1920 of the Five Socialist Assemblymen by Their Political Opponents. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920; pp. 2-7.
- Waldman, Albany: The Crisis in Government, p. 7.
- In his history of the 1920 expulsions written just after the fact, Socialist Assemblyman Louis Waldman noted that "expressions of astonishment and indignation flowed in from all parts of the world," including public figures from England, France, Italy, and Argentina. Waldman, Albany: The Crisis in Government, p. 43.
- Waldman, Albany: The Crisis in Government, pp. 64-65.
- Waldman, Albany: The Crisis in Government, p. 67.
- In the 8th New York County Assembly District Louis Waldman beat Morris B. Reiss 3,222 to 3,066; in the 17th New York County AD August Claessens beat Augusta Rosenzweig 3,735 to 2,220; in the 3rd Bronx AD Samuel DeWitt beat Milton Altschuler 3,865 to 2,310; in the 40th Bronx AD Samuel Orr beat James J. Collins 4,171 to 3,063; and in the 23rd Kings AD Charles Solomon beat Jonathan Schneider 2,816 to 1,521. Minnesota Daily Star, September 17, 1920, pg. 1.
- "Socialists Again Ousted by New York Assembly," Minnesota Daily Star, September 22, 1920, pg. 1.
- Roscoe C.E. Brown, History of the State of New York: Political and Government, vol. IV: 1896-1920 (Syracuse: Syracuse Press, 1922), 323