- Harriet Bouslog:Labor Attorney and “Champagne Socialist”
“…there’s no such thing as a fair trial in a Smith Act case. … All rules of evidence have to be scrapped or the government can’t make a case.”—Harriet Bouslog, December 14, 1952
In December 1952 Hawai‘i labor lawyer Harriet Bouslog was asked by local union leader Jack Hall to explain what was happening with the indictment of the “Hawaii Seven” and with the Smith Act trials more generally in America. In a village 182 miles from the courtroom in Honolulu, surrounded by pineapple fields, she had the audacity to exclaim, “There’s no such thing as a fair trial in a Smith Act case. All rules of evidence have to be scrapped or the government can’t make a case.”1 For this and other statements critical of the government witnesses and prosecutorial conduct, as well as the remoteness of the evidence to the alleged conspiracy, the Bar Association of Hawaii investigated and suspended Bouslog. Indeed, the organization amended its own rules to do so—and her suspension was upheld by the Territorial Supreme Court. She lost at the Ninth Circuit Court 4-3, but eventually [End Page 103] won at the U.S. Supreme Court. Today her case is remembered not only for preserving the independence of the bar, but also for critically forwarding the proposition that lawyers have First Amendment rights. More generally, her case is one of the many important decisions that flow from the original Smith Act case, United States v. Dennis et al, which resulted in a 1951 Supreme Court decision that significantly altered the “clear and present danger” test of free speech and paved the way for fifteen additional trials. This article situates Bouslog’s career and her case within this larger story and concludes with an argument that her case has been underappreciated in legal history and in the extant scholarship on the Smith Act trials.
Harriet Anna Williams was born in Florida on October 21, 1912, of strong middle American and progressive lineage: her parents, Charles and Ada Williams, were community-oriented, both teachers from agrarian backgrounds and members of the Republican Party.2 Their values included decency, fairness, and an enduring commitment to the ideal of democracy; they also placed great emphasis on hard work and education. Bouslog grew up in Indiana and came of age during the Depression; her future political leanings were stirred by her interest in the Spanish Civil War, a cause that her literary heroes, such as Ernest Hemingway, avidly supported. Bouslog attended Indiana University and in 1932 switched her major from literature to law; in so doing she became the only woman in her 1936 graduating class. One of her mentors was Fowler Harper, a civil libertarian forced to leave the university for advocating the free speech rights of communists.3 While she was clearly ambitious in forging ahead in law, she also married Charles Bouslog the same day she graduated and moved to Boston so her husband could complete his doctorate in English at Harvard. It was his career that took them both to Hawai‘i, and in 1939 they traveled to O‘ahu together so he could take up a position at the University of Hawai‘i.
A locally produced documentary on Bouslog’s life elaborates simply on the reasons for her political engagement in Hawai‘i: “… she arrived with a dream of paradise and found a feudal society.”4 At that time, Hawai‘i was not the tourist paradise of today, but rather a plantation society deeply divided along the class and race lines. The sugar and pineapple plantations that formed the backbone of the agrarian economy were controlled by oligopolistic enterprises known as the [End Page 104] “Big Five”—with interlocking boards of directors whose influence on local politics and society was substantial and oriented to their mutual corporate self-interest.5 Workers were hired from immigrant labor pools, lived in company-controlled housing, with low-wage policies and segregation designed to keep ethnic groups apart. Bouslog was a keen observer of the human condition, and what she saw in Hawai‘i effectively transformed her...