McSurely v. McClellan Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 


Case Description 

McSurely v. McClellan is a case that challenged congressional immunity for wrongdoing with regards to the illegal seizure and copying of written documents from the home of voting rights activists Alan and Margaret McSurely.

This case began in 1967 when Alan and Margaret McSurely and three other political activists were arrested and charged with violating Kentucky sedition laws. As a result of their case, the sedition statute was declared unconstitutional. The court also ordered the return of books, documents and personal papers which had been seized from the McSurelys by arresting officers. This order was not followed.

The Kentucky prosecutor permitted Senator John McClellan’s congressional committee to copy many of the seized papers, and the committee issued a subpoena to the McSurelys for the originals. After refusing to comply, the McSurelys were eventually tried and convicted of contempt of Congress. The convictions were reversed in 1972 on the ground that the subpoena was based on the illegal 1967 seizure.

In 1968, while the contempt charges were pending, the McSurelys filed a damage action against McClellan, other government officials, and the Kentucky prosecutor. Seven years later, a Court of Appeals ruled that the Senator and his aide were not protected by congressional immunity. The complaint was then sustained by the U.S. Supreme Court.

After a five-week trial in 1982, a jury found that McClellan had conspired with Senate aides and Kentucky law enforcement authorities to deprive the McSurelys of their fundamental liberties. The McSurelys were awarded $1.6 million in compensatory and punitive damages.

The defendants appealed. While the appeal was pending, the Kentucky prosecutor agreed to settle. In January 1985, a Court of Appeals reversed the judgments as to the First and Fourth Amendment violations, while it sustained the judgment for breach of privacy against one of the defendants to the extent of $20,000. The Supreme Court refused to review this decision.

Early in 1986, the U.S. Senate adopted a resolution to pay the McSurelys the amount due on the judgment.