Meyer v. Richmond/Dissent Fuller

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

172 U.S. 82

Meyer  v.  Richmond

Mr. Chief Justice FULLER, dissenting on the question of jurisdiction.

I am of opinion that this writ of error should be dismissed. The contention of plaintiff in error is that the validity of the act of the general assembly of Virginia of May 24, 1870, was drawn in question in the state courts on the ground of repugnancy to the constitution of the United States, and that the decision of the court of appeals was in favor of its validity.

The validity of a statute is drawn in question when the power to enact it is denied, and a definite issue in that regard must be distinctly deducible from the record, in order for this court to hold that the state courts have adjudicated as to the validity of the enactment under the constitution.

This case had gone to judgment, and a motion to set aside the judgment had been made and denied, before it was suggested that the act was inconsistent with the federal constitution. And that question was then attempted to be raised by a second motion to vacate. But the disposal of motions of this class is within the discretion of the trial court, and only revisable by the appellate tribunal, if at all, when there is a palpable abuse of discretion.

Whether the trial court, in this instance, overruled the second motion because a second motion of that sort, without special cause shown, could not be entertained, or because of unreasonable delay, it is impossible to say; and to impute to that court the decision of a federal question, when it obviously may have considered that the point was presented too late, seems to me wholly inadmissible. And although, in his petition to the court of appeals, plaintiff in error recited the action he had taken, and urged that the trial court had erred in sustaining the demurrer to his declaration, and in refusing to set aside the judgment so that the constitutional question suggested might be passed on, that court, in the exercise of appellate juricdiction only, may well have concluded that the discretion of the court below could not be interfered with.

It does not follow, from the bare fact that this second motion presented in terms a single point, that that point was disposed of in denying the motion, when other grounds for such denial plainly existed.

It is thoroughly settled that if the record of the state courts discloses that a federal question has been raised and decided, and another question, not federal, broad enough to sustain the judgment, has also been raised and decided, this court will not review the judgment; that this is so even when it does not appear on which of the two grounds the judgment was based, if the independent ground on which it might have been based was a good and valid one; and also where the record shows the existence of nonfederal grounds of decision, though silent as to what particular ground was pressed and proceeded on. In other words, the rule is that the record must so present a federal question that, even if the reasons for decision are not given, this court can properly conclude that it was disposed of by the state courts. If the conflict of a state law with the constitution, and the decision by the state court in favor of its validity, are relied on, such decision must appear on the face of the record, before the judgment can be re-examined in this court.

In Klinger v. Missouri, 13 Wall. 257, a juror had declined to take the test oath prescribed by the sixth section of the second article of the constitution of Missouri of 1865, and was discharged from the panel. It was insisted here that he was thus excluded for no other reason than that he refused to take the oath, and, if this had been so, the question of the repugnancy of the section to the constitution of the United States would have arisen. But as this court was of opinion that, inasmuch as the grounds the juror assigned for his refusal manifested a settled hostility to the government, he might 'well have been deemed by the court, irrespective of his refusal to take the oath, an unfit person to act as a juryman, and a participant in the administration of the laws,' it was held that 'it certainly would have been in the discretion of the court, if not its duty, to discharge him.' And Mr. Justice Bradley, delivering the opinion of the court, said: 'In this case it appears that the court below had a good and valid reason for discharging the juror, independent of his refusal to take the test oath; and it does not appear but that he was discharged for that ground. It cannot, therefore, with certainty, be said that the supreme court of Missouri did decide in favor of the validity of the said clause of the state constitution, which requires a juror to take the test oath.' There was nothing in the record to show on what ground the trial court excluded the juror, or that the point urged in this court was taken in the supreme court of the state; and yet, because the trial court might have discharged the juror as matter of discretion, or because of unfitness in the particular suggested, this court decided that its jurisdiction could not be maintained, and the writ of error was dismissed. And see Johnson v. Risk, 137 U.S. 300, 11 Sup. Ct. 111; Dibble v. Land Co., 163 U.S. 63, 16 Sup. Ct. 939.

We have held that the question whether a party has by laches and acquiescence waived the right to insist that a state statute impaired the obligation of a contract is not a federal question. Pierce v. Railway Co., 171 U.S. 641, 19 Sup. Ct. 64.

And certainly, in view of the careful language of section 709 of the Revised Statutes, we ought not to take jurisdiction to revise a judgment of a state court, where a party seeks to import a federal question into the record, after judgment, by an application so palpably open to decision on nonfederal grounds.

I am authorized to state that Mr. Justice GRAY concurs in this dissent.

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).