Ladner v. United States (358 U.S. 169)/Dissent Clark

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

358 U.S. 169

Ladner  v.  United States

 Argued: Oct. 22, 1958. --- Decided: Dec 15, 1958

Mr. Justice CLARK (dissenting).

By what to me is a dubious route, permitting a collateral attack to be made on this old judgment under § 2255 [1] proceedings, the Court reaches the merits only to agree fully with Ladner's contentions. As I see it, this enlargement of jurisdiction under § 2255 will subject the trial court dockets to a rash of applications by prisoners and completely overturn the purpose of the Congress in adopting the § 2255 procedure in lieu of habeas corpus. Moreover, it appears that by adopting Ladner's view on the merits the Court clearly informs the criminal, if I might be permitted to borrow a phrase, that assaults on the lives of federal officers come just 'as cheap by the dozen.'

Nearly fourteen years ago, two federal officers were ambushed and seriously wounded by Ladner when he shot them point-blank with a shotgun as they sat in the front seat of a vehicle transporting some prisoners arrested in a raid on an illicit distillery. He was convicted of an assault on each of the officers. Ladner contends that he fired only a single charge from the shotgun and is, therefore, guilty of only one offense, regardless of the number of officers assaulted.

The principal issue, as I see the case, is the procedural one under § 2255, namely whether the Court should allow this collateral attack on Ladner's sentence. This important question, both argued and briefed by the Government, is, I think, wrongly decided by the Court. These proceedings are by motion under § 2255 to correct the consecutive sentences of ten years imposed on each of Counts 2 and 3 of the indictment. Count 2 charges an assault on Officer James Buford Reed, while Count 3 charges one on Officer W. W. Frost. The record is unclear, as the Court points out, as to how many discharges of the shotgun Ladner fired into the vehicle. Hence a determination of that issue must be made by the trial court on remand of the case.

Clearly this is an error that should have been raised by appeal. It did not undermine the jurisdiction of the original trial court, for under the allegations of the indictment these counts clearly state separate offenses. It raises no constitutional issue. The history of § 2255 clearly reveals that such an attack was not authorized. Reference to United States v. Hayman, 1952, 342 U.S. 205, 72 S.Ct. 263, 96 L.Ed. 232, gives us a complete picture. The Judicial Conference of the United States proposed § 2255 to remedy the 'practical problems that had arisen in the administration of the federal courts' habeas corpus jurisdiction.' The Conference in submitting the measure to the Congress noted that

'The motion remedy broadly covers all situations where the sentence is 'open to collateral attack.' As a remedy, it is intended to be as broad as habeas corpus.' Hayman, supra, 342 U.S. at page 217, 72 S.Ct. at page 271.

It is clear that in enacting § 2255, Congress did not intend to enlarge the available grounds for collateral attack, but rather sought only to correct serious administrative problems that had developed in the exercise over the years of habeas corpus jurisdiction.

The Court today holds that the trial court may have committed an error of law which will require the reconstruction of the evidence as to the number of shots fired by Ladner. As I have indicated, this may require a retrial of this fourteen-year-old case. Here the indictment and judgment are admittedly regular on their faces. The dispute is entirely with the facts of the incident. The issue, therefore, is squarely governed by the principles of Sunal v. Large, 1947, 332 U.S. 174, 67 S.Ct. 1588, 91 L.Ed. 1982. That was a habeas corpus proceeding attacking a conviction admittedly obtained as a result of error of the trial court. As here, neither the jurisdiction of the trial court nor claimed constitutional violations were at issue. The Court, speaking through Mr. Justice Douglas, said:

'Congress * * * has provided a regular, orderly method for correction of all such errors by granting an appeal to the Circuit Courts of Appeals and by vesting us with certiorari jurisdiction. * * * Every error is potentially reversible error; and many rulings of the trial court spell the difference between conviction and acquittal. If defendants who accept the judgment of conviction and do not appeal can later renew their attack on the judgment by habeas corpus, litigation in these criminal cases will be interminable. Wise judicial administration of the federal courts counsels against such course, at least where the error does not trench on any constitutional rights of defendants nor involve the jurisdiction of the trial court.' 332 U.S. at pages 181-182, 67 S.Ct. at page 1592.

The history and language of § 2255 show that the same limitations are present in such proceedings and that they are equally jurisdictional. What was enacted by Congress to solve the practical problems created by the 'great increases' in habeas corpus applications today becomes the tool by which prisoners can pry open their convictions on even broader grounds than were ever permitted theretofore. It appears entirely probable that a much greater administrative problem will result than confronted the courts before the enactment of § 2255.

The Court cites seven cases in which we decided 'questions of statutory construction' although the questions were raised by 'collateral attack upon consecutive sentences. * * *' But those cases only point up my position the more, i.e., that a collateral attack can be made only where the error in the sentence is apparent from the facts alleged in the four corners of the indictment or admitted by the parties. In five of the cases, i.e., In re Snow, 1887, 120 U.S. 274, 7 S.Ct. 556, 30 L.Ed. 658; Tinder v. United States, 1953, 345 U.S. 565, 73 S.Ct. 911, 97 L.Ed. 1250; Gore v. United States, 1958, 357 U.S. 386, 78 S.Ct. 1280, 2 L.Ed.2d 1405; Prince v. United States, 1957, 352 U.S. 322, 77 S.Ct. 403, 1 L.Ed.2d 370, and Ebeling v. Morgan, 1915, 237 U.S. 625, 35 S.Ct. 710, 59 L.Ed. 1151, the error in sentencing is apparent from the face of the indictment. In the remaining two cases, Bell v. United States, 1955, 349 U.S. 81, 75 S.Ct. 620, 99 L.Ed. 905; [2] and Morgan v. Devine, 1915, 237 U.S. 632, 35 S.Ct. 712, 59 L.Ed. 1153, the facts were admitted. The importance of this distinction is indicated by the Court in Prince where it goes out of its way to point out that it was admitted by respondent that the robbery charged in Count 1 was performed immediately after the entry into the bank, charged in Count 2. The majority cannot point to a single case in this Court where collateral attack on consecutive sentences has been permitted under § 2255 when the facts were in dispute. There is none. The law has long been settled, formerly under habeas corpus and now under § 2255, to the contrary.

However, even more surprising to me, as it runs counter to my understanding of efficient judicial administration, is the Court's statement that its holding today should not be considered as 'intimating any view as to the availability of a collateral remedy in another case where that question is properly raised, and is adequately briefed and argued in this Court.' I find no counterpart for such a handling in our precedents. Implicit therein is the suggestion that come another case where the point is 'properly raised (and) adequately briefed and argued in this Court' [3] then the conclusion will be different. Meanwhile, the Court says, Ladner is no precedent on the question of 'the availability of a collateral remedy.' Despite this, the Court permits its use here. This ad hoc disposition is not in keeping with good business conduct so necessary in court administration.

I do not reach the merits. The Congress, however, may correct that error of the Court. But the ad hoc manner in which it has today disposed of the case we shall have with us always-a precedent for others to follow.


^1  28 U.S.C. § 2255 (1952), 28 U.S.C.A. § 2255.

^2  Though the § 2255 issue was mentioned in the Government's reply to the petition for certiorari in Bell, the question was not briefed nor argued on the merits.

^3  The point was raised in this Court. The Government devoted four and one-half pages of its 29-page brief to it, discussing 18 separate cases. My research of the question indicates there would be little to add to the Government's discussion.

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).