December 6: Palko v. Connecticut Decides Which Are Americans’ Most Important Rights


On December 6, 1937, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that had a lasting impact on how American courts interpreted and applied the fundamental freedoms found in the Bill of Rights. The landmark case, Palko v. Connecticut, specifically involved the application of the Fifth Amendment, which protects accused parties against double jeopardy (being tried twice for the same crime).

In 1935, Frank Palko shot and killed two Connecticut police officers while attempting to flee the scene of a robbery. He was initially charged with first-degree murder — a charge which carried the death penalty — but was instead found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The State of Connecticut appealed the decision, and Palko was retried, found guilty of first-degree murder, and sentenced to death. Palko’s lawyers appealed, claiming that Palko’s second trial violated the Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy and the14th Amendment’s right to due process.

The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the court’s nine justices debated whether or not the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which were guaranteed on a federal level, could be equally applied to cases under the jurisdiction of individual states. Previously, the Supreme Court had ruled that some — but not all — of these federal protections applied to state cases. The Court ultimately ruled eight-to-one against Palko and in favor of the State of Connecticut, deciding that the federal protection against double jeopardy contained in the Bill of Rights did not automatically apply to state cases as well. In writing the majority opinion for the Court, Justice Benjamin Cardozo (pictured) explained that the Court considered certain rights more important than others. Since protection against double jeopardy was not “essential to a fundamental scheme of ordered liberty,” the federal government would not overrule a state’s court decision concerning it. In contrast, Cardozo wrote at length about the essential importance of the rights granted to all Americans in the First Amendment, famously declaring that the freedom of speech and freedom of expression “are the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom” — a rallying cry that still inspires defenders of the First Amendment to this day. Freedom spoke with a loud clear voice, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Palko v. Connecticut,” The First Amendment Encyclopedia at Middle Tennessee State University

The Bill of Rights: A Transcription,” National Archives