Savin/Opinion of the Court

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Savin by John Marshall Harlan
Opinion of the Court
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Opinion of the Court
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United States Supreme Court

131 U.S. 267

SAVIN


The power of the courts of the United States to punish contempts of their authority is not merely incidental to their general power to exercise judicial functions, but, as was said in Ex parte Terry, 128 U.S. 289, 304, ante, 77, where this subject was considered, is expressly recognized and the cases in which it may be exercised are defined, by acts of congress. The judiciary act of September 24, 1789, (chapter 20 § 17,) invests them with 'power to punish by fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of said courts, all contempts of authority in any cause or hearing before the same.' 1 St. 83. By an act of congress of March 2, 1831, c. 99, 'declaratory of the law concerning contempts of court,' (4 St. 487,) it was enacted: 'That the power of the several courts of the United States to issue attachments and inflict summary punishments for contempts of court shall not be construed to extend to any cases except the misbehavior of any person or persons in the presence of the said courts, or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice, the misbehavior of any of the officers of the said courts in their official transactions, and the disobedience or resistance by any officer of the said courts, party, juror, witness, or any other person or persons, to any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of the said courts. Sec. 2. That if any person or persons shall corruptly, or by threats or force, endeavor to influence, intimidate, or impede any juror, witness, or officer, in any court of the United States, in the discharge of his duty, or shall, corruptly, or by threats or force, obstruct or impede, or endeavor to obstruct or impede, the due administration of justice therein, every person or persons so offending, shall be liable to prosecution therefor, by indictment, and shall, on conviction thereof, be punished by fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, or by imprisonment not exceeding three months, or both, according to the nature and aggravation of the offense.' Section 725, Rev. St. tit. 'The Judiciary,' is in these words: 'The said courts shall have power to impose and administer all necessary oaths, and to punish, by fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of the court, contempts of their authority: provided, that such power to punish contempts shall not be construed to extend to any cases except the misbehavior of any person in their presence, or so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice, the misbehavior of any of the officers of said courts in their official transactions, and the disobedience or resistance by any such officer, or by any party, juror, witness, or other person, to any lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command of the said courts.' The second section of the act of 1831 is in part reproduced in section 5399, Rev. St. tit. 'Crimes.' That section is as follows: 'Every person who corruptly, or by threats or force, endeavors to influence, intimidate, or impede any witness, or officer in any court of the United States, in the discharge of his duty, or corruptly, or by threats or force, obstructs or impedes, or endeavors to obstruct or impede, the due administration of justice therein, shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars, or by imprisonment not more than three months, or both.'

It is contended that the substance of the charge against the appellant is that he endeavored, by forbidden means, to influence or 'impede' a witness in the district court from testifying in a cause pending therein, and to obstruct or impede the due administration of justice, which offense is embraced by section 5399, and it is argued, is punishable only by indictment. Undoubtedly, the offense charged is embraced by that section, and is punishable by indictment. But the statute does not make that mode exclusive, if the offense is committed under such circumstances as to bring it within the power of the court under section 725; when, for instance, the offender is guilty of misbehavior in its presence, or misbehavior so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice. The act of 1789 did not define what were contempts of the authority of the courts of the United States in any cause or hearing before them, nor did it prescribe any special procedure for determining a matter of contempt. Under that statute the question whether particular acts constituted a contempt, as well as the mode of proceeding against the o fender, was left to be determined according to such established rules and principles of the common law as were applicable to our situation. The act of 1831, however, materially modified that of 1789, in that it restricted the power of the courts to inflict summary punishments for contempt to certain specified cases, among which was misbehavior in the presence of the court, or misbehavior so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice. Ex parte Robinson, 19 Wall. 505, 511. And although the word 'summary' was, for some reason, not repeated in the present revision, which invests the courts of the United States with power 'to punish, by fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of the court, contempts of their authority' in certain cases defined in section 725, we do not doubt that the power to proceed summarily for contempt in those cases remains, as under the act of 1831, with those courts. It was, in effect, so adjudged in Ex parte Terry, above cited.

The question then arises whether the facts recited in the final order in the district court as constituting the contempt which facts must be taken in this collateral proceeding to be true make a case of misbehavior in the presence of that court, or misbehavior so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice therein. There may be misbehavior in the presence of a court amounting to contempt that would not, ordinarily, be said to obstruct the administration of justice. So there may be misbehavior, not in the immediate presence of the court, but outside of and in the vicinity of the building in which the court is held, which, on account of its disorderly character, would actually interrupt the court, being in session, in the conduct of its business, and consequently obstruct the administration of justice. Flores, we have seen, was in attendance upon the court, in obedience to a subpoena commanding him to appear as a witness in behalf of one of the parties to a case then being tried. While he was so in attendance, and when in the jury-room, temporarily used as a witness-room, the appellant endeavored to deter him from testifying in favor of the government, in whose behalf he had been summoned; and, on the same occasion, and while the witness was in the hallway of the courtroom, the appellant offered him money not to testify against Goujon, the defendant in that case. Was not this such misbehavior upon the part of the appellant as made him liable, under section 725, to fine or imprisonment, at the discretion of the court? This question cannot reasonably receive any other than an affirmative answer. The jury-room and hallway where the misbehavior occurred, were parts of the place in which the court was required by law to hold its sessions. It was held in Heard v. Pierce, 8 Cush. 338, 341, that 'the grand jury, like the petit jury, is an appendage of the court, acting under the authority of the court, and the witnesses summoned before them are amenable to the court, precisely as the witnesses testifying before the petit jury are amenable to the court.' Bacon, in his Essay on Judicature, says: 'The place of justice is an hallowed place; and therefore not only the bench, but the foot-pace and precincts and purprise thereof, ought to be preserved without scandal and corruption.' We are of opinion that, within the meaning of the statute, the court, at least when in session, is present in every part of the place set apart for its own use, and for the use of its officers, jurors, and witnesses: and misbehavior anywhere in such place is misbehavior in the presence of the court. It is true that the mode of proceeding for contempt is not the same in every case of such misbehavior. Where the contempt is committed directly under the eye or within the view of the court, it may proceed 'upon its own knowledge of the facts, and punish the offender, without further proof and without issue or trial in any form,' (Ex parte Terry, 128 U.S. 289, 309, ante, 77;) whereas, in cases of misbehavior of which he judge cannot have such personal knowledge, and is informed thereof only by the confession of the party, or by the testimony under oath of others, the proper practice is, by rule or other process, to require the offender to appear and show cause why he should not be punished. 4 Bl. Comm. 286. But this difference in procedure does not affect the question as to whether particular acts do not, within the meaning of the statute, constitute misbehavior in the presence of the court. If, while Flores was in the court-room, waiting to be called as a witness, the appellant had attempted to deter him from testifying on behalf of the government, or had there offered him money not to testify against Goujon, it could not be doubted that he would have been guilty of misbehavior in the presence of the court, although the judge might not have been personally cognizant at the time of what occurred. But if such attempt and offer occurred in the hallway just outside of the court-room, or in the witness-room, where Flores was waiting, in obedience to the subpoena served upon him, or pursuant to the order of the court, to be called into the court-room as a witness, must it be said that such misbehavior was not in the presence of the court? Clearly not. We are of opinion that the conduct of the appellant, as described in the final order of the district court, was misbehavior in its presence, for which he was subject to be punished without indictment, by fine or imprisonment, at its discretion, as provided in section 725, Rev. St. And this view renders it unnecessary to consider whether, as argued, the words 'so near thereto as to obstruct the administration of justice' refer only to cases of misbehavior, outside of the court-room, or in the vicinity of the court building, causing such open or violent disturbance of the quiet and order of the court, while in session, as to actually interrupt the transaction of its business.

It is, however, contended that the proceedings in the district court were insufficient to give that court jurisdiction to render judgment. This contention is based mainly upon the refusal of the court to require service of interrogatories upon the appellant, so that, in answering them, he could purge himself of the contempt charged. The court could have adopted that mode of trying the question of contempt, but it was not bound to do so. It could, in its discretion, adopt such mode of determining that question as it deemed proper, provided due regard was had to the essential rules that obtain in the trial of matters of contempt. This principle is illustrated in Randall v. Brigham, 7 Wall. 523, 540, which was an action for damages against the judge of a court of general jurisdiction, who removed the plaintiff from his office as an attorney at law on account of malpractice and gross misconduct in his office. One of his contentions was that the court never acquired jurisdiction to act in his case, because no formal accusation was made against him, nor any statement of the grounds of complaint, nor a formal citation against him to answer them. The court, after observing that the informalities of the notice did not touch the question of jurisdiction, and that the plaintiff understood from the notice received the nature of the charge against him, said: 'He was afforded ample opportunity to explain the transaction and vindicate his conduct. He introduced testimony upon the matter, and was sworn himself. It is not necessary that proceedings against attorneys for malpractice, or any unprofessional conduct, should be founded upon formal allegations against them. Such proceedings are often instituted upon information developed in the progress of a cause, or from what the court learns of the conduct of the attorney from its own observation. Sometimes they are moved by third parties upon affidavit, and sometimes they are taken by the court upon its own motion. All that is requisite to their validity is that, when not taken for matters occurring in open court, in the presence of the judges, notice should be given to the attorney of the charges made, and opportunity afforded him for explanation and defense. The manner in which the proceedings shall be conducted, so that it be without oppression or unfairness, is a matter of judicial regulation.' So, in the present case, if the appellant was entitled of right to purge himself, under oath, of the contempt, that right was not denied to him; for it appears from the proceedings in the district court, made part of the petition for habeas corpus, not only that he was informed of the nature of the charges against him by the testimony of Flores, taken down by a sworn stenographer at the preliminary examination, but that he was present at the hearing of the contempt, was represented by counsel, testified under oath in his own behalf, and had full opportunity to make his defense.

Our conclusion is that the district court had jurisdiction of the subject-matter, and of the person, and that irregularities, if any, occurring in the mere conduct of the case, do not affect the validity of its final order. Its judgment, so far as it involved mere errors, cannot be reviewed in this collateral proceeding, and must be affirmed. It is so ordered.

Notes[edit]

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).