Ackermann v. United States/Dissent Black

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

340 U.S. 193

Ackermann  v.  United States

 Argued: Oct. 19, 1950. --- Decided: Dec 11, 1950

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER and Mr. Justice DOUGLAS concur, dissenting.

The Court's interpretation of amended Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure neutralizes the humane spirit of the Rule and thereby frustrates its purpose. The Rule empowers courts to set aside judgments under five traditional, specified types of circumstances in which it would be inequitable to permit a judgment to stand. But the draftsmen of the Rule did not intend that these specified grounds should prevent the granting of similar relief in other situations where fairness might require it. Accordingly, there was added a broad sixth ground: 'any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment.' The Court nevertheless holds that the allegations of the present motions were not sufficient to justify the District Court in hearing evidence to determine whether justice would best be served by granting relief from the judgments against petitioners. [1] Because I disagree with this interpretation of Rule 60(b), it becomes necessary to summarize the allegations of the motions.

Petitioners, a husband and wife whose native country was Germany, became naturalized citizens of the United States in 1938. After the declaration of war against Germany, the Government commenced proceedings which resulted in the denaturalization of petitioners and also of their relative, Keilbar. United States v. Ackermann, D.C., 53 F.Supp. 611. Petitioners did not appeal from these judgments but on March 25, 1948, filed duly verified motions for relief from the judgments. The uncontradicted allegations of the motions show: When the judgments were entered, neither of the petitioners had any money or property except a home at Taylor, Texas, worth not in excess of $2,500. They were told by their counsel that the cost of an appeal would be $5,000; that to prosecute an appeal they would have to sell their home, contribute that $2,500 and then hope to have the appeal tried out on an affidavit of insolvency. Being distressed by reason of having to choose between selling their home or foregoing an appeal, the petitioners sought advice from the United States official who then held them in custody, one W. F. Kelley, assistant commissioner for alien control, Immigration and Naturalization Service of the United States. Petitioners had great confidence in this officer. Kelley advised them to 'hang on to their home' and also that they 'would be released at the end of the war.' Because of their reliance on this advice, petitioners 'refrained from appealing * * * said judgments.' Thereafter their relative Keilbar did appeal and the judgment of denaturalization against him was reversed on the Government's admission that the evidence was insufficient to support it. Keilbar v. United States, 5 Cir., 144 F.2d 866. Petitioners insisted both in their motions to set the judgments aside and in argument that the evidence against them and Keilbar was substantially the same.

In holding that the allegations of these motions are not even sufficient to justify the District Court in hearing evidence, the Court relies heavily on its assertion that petitioners 'had no right to repose confidence in Kelley' because Kelley was a 'stranger' to them. In the first place, Rule 60(b)'s broad grant of power to the District Court should not be constricted by the importation of the concept of legal 'rights.' Moreover, far from being a stranger, Kelley was the United States official who held petitioners in custody. Any person held by the United States should be able to repose confidence in the Government official entrusted with his custody. There are obvious reasons why this should be true in the case of the foreign born, less familiar with our customs than are our native citizens.

The Court also relies on the fact that the motions to set aside the judgments contain 'no allegations of privity or any fiduciary relations existing' between petitioners and Kelley. Surely the liberalizing provisions of 60(b) should not be emasculated by common-law ideas of 'privity' or 'fiduciary relations.' If relevant, however, I should think that the phrase 'fiduciary relations' given its best meaning encompasses the relationship between petitioners and the official who held them in custody.

Finally, since the Court holds that the allegations of petitioners' motions were insufficient to justify the hearing of evidence by the District Court, I think it inappropriate for the Court to consider what purports to be its judicial knowledge of the cost of transcripts and the ability of litigants to file typewritten records and briefs. The motions refute any such knowledge on the part of these petitioners and I am satisfied that no such knowledge would be established if the District Court were permitted to try these cases.

The result of the Court's illiberal construction of 60(b) is that these foreign-born people, dependent on our laws for their safety and protection, are denied the right to appeal to the very court that held (on the Government's admission) that the judgment against their co-defendant was unsupported by adequate evidence. It does no good to have liberalizing rules like 60(b) if, after they are written, their arteries are hardened by this Court's resort to ancient common-law concepts. I would reverse.


^1  Petitioners' motions to be relieved from the judgments of denaturalization invoked the jurisdiction of the District Court under Rule 60(b). Contending that these motions did 'not state grounds sufficient to invoke the authority of the Court * * *,' the Government moved to dismiss them. These pleadings therefore posed only the question of the trial court's jurisdiction. Without further pleadings or the taking of evidence, the court entered an order which stated that 'there is no merit to said (petitioners') motion(s) and * * * the same should be denied.' But since we cannot assume that an issue not framed by the pleadings was decided, it necessarily follows that the District Court held it was without jurisdiction to grant relief under Rule 60(b). But cf. Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 682-683, 66 S.Ct. 773, 776, 90 L.Ed. 939; Brown v. Western R. Co., 338 U.S. 294, 70 S.Ct. 105.

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).