Ex Parte Secombe , 60 U.S. 9 ( 1857 )

  • 60 U.S. 9 (____)
    19 How. 9


    Supreme Court of United States.

    *13 The case was argued by Mr. Badger in support of the motion.

    Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.

    A mandamus has been moved for, by David A. Secombe, to be directed to the judges of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Minnesota, commanding them to vacate and set aside an order of the court, passed at January term, 1856, whereby the said Secombe was removed from his office as an attorney and counsellor of that court.

    In the case of Tillinghast v. Conkling, which came before this court at January term, 1829, a similar motion was overruled by this court. The case is not reported; but a brief written opinion remains on the files of the court, in which the court says that the motion is overruled, upon the ground that it had not jurisdiction in the case.

    The removal of the attorney and counsellor, in that case, took place in a District Court of the United States, exercising the powers of a Circuit Court; and, in a court of that character, the relations between the court and the attorneys and counsellors who practise in it, and their respective rights and duties, are regulated by the common law. And it has been well settled, by the rules and practice of common-law courts, that it rests exclusively with the court to determine who is qualified to become one of its officers, as an attorney and counsellor, and for what cause he ought to be removed. The power, however, is not an arbitrary and despotic one, to be exercised at the pleasure of the court, or from passion, prejudice, or personal hostility; but it is the duty of the court to exercise and regulate it by a sound and just judicial discretion, whereby the rights and independence of the bar may be as scrupulously guarded and maintained by the court, as the rights and dignity of the court itself.

    It has, however, been urged at the bar, that a much broader discretionary power is exercised in courts acting upon the rules of the common law than can be lawfully exercised in the Territorial court of Minnesota; because the Legislature of the Territory has, by statute, prescribed the conditions upon which a person may entitle himself to admission as an attorney *14 and counsellor in its courts, and also enumerated the offences for which he may be removed, and prescribed the mode of proceeding against him. And the relator complains that it appears by the transcript from the record, and the certificate of the clerk, which he filed with his petition for a mandamus, that in the sentence of removal he is not found guilty of any specific offence which would, under the statute of the Territory, justify his removal, and had no notice of any charge against him, and no opportunity of being heard in his defence.

    It is true that, in the statutes of Minnesota, rules are prescribed for the admission of attorneys and counsellors, and also for their removal. But it will appear, upon examination, that, in describing some of the offences for which they may be removed, the statute has done but little, if anything, more than enact the general rules upon which the courts of common law have always acted; and have not, in any material degree, narrowed the discretion they exercised. Indeed, it is difficult, if not impossible, to enumerate and define, with legal precision, every offence for which an attorney or counsellor ought to be removed. And the Legislature, for the most part, can only prescribe general rules and principles to be carried into execution by the court with judicial discretion and justice as cases may arise.

    The revised code of Minnesota, (ch. 93, sec. 7, subdivision 2,) makes it the duty of the attorney and counsellor "to maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers."

    The 19th section of the same chapter enumerates certain offences for which an attorney or counsellor may be removed; and, among others, enacts that he may be removed for a wilful violation of any of the provisions of section 7, above mentioned. And, in its sentence of removal, the court say that the relator, being one of the attorneys and counsellors of the court, had, by his acts as such, in open court, at the term at which he was removed, been guilty of a wilful violation of the provision above mentioned, and also of a violation of that part of his official oath by which he was sworn to conduct himself with fidelity to the court.

    The statute, it will be observed, does not attempt to specify the acts which shall be deemed disrespectful to the court or the judicial officers. It must therefore rest with the court to determine what acts amount to a violation of this provision; and this is a judicial power vested in the court by the Legislature. The removal of the relator, therefore, for the cause above mentioned, was the act of a court done in the exercise of a judicial discretion which the law authorized and required *15 it to exercise. And the other cause assigned for the removal stands on the same ground.

    It is not necessary to inquire whether this decision of the Territorial court can be reviewed here in any other form of proceeding. But the court are of opinion that he is not entitled to a remedy by mandamus. Undoubtedly the judgment of an inferior court may be reversed in a superior one which possesses appellate power over it, and a mandate be issued, commanding it to carry into execution the judgment of the appellate tribunal. But it cannot be reviewed and reversed in this form of proceeding, however erroneous it may be or supposed to be. And we are not aware of any case where a mandamus has issued to an inferior tribunal, commanding it to reverse or annul its decision, where the decision was in its nature a judicial act, and within the scope of its jurisdiction and discretion.

    These principles apply with equal force to the proceedings adopted by the court in making the removal.

    The statute of Minnesota, under which the court acted, directs that the proceedings to remove an attorney or counsellor must be taken by the court, on its own motion, for matter within its knowledge; or may be taken on the information of another. And, in the latter case, it requires that the information should be in writing, and notice be given to the party, and a day given to him to answer and deny the sufficiency of the accusation, or deny its truth.

    In this case, it appears that the offences charged were committed in open court, and the proceedings to remove the relator were taken by the court upon its own motion. And it appears by his affidavit that he had no notice that the court intended to proceed against him; had no opportunity of being heard in his defence, and did not know that he was dismissed from the bar until the term was closed, and the court had adjourned to the next term.

    Now, in proceeding to remove the relator, the court was necessarily called on to decide whether, in a case where the offence was committed in open court, and the proceeding was had by the court on its own motion, the statute of Minnesota required that notice should be given to the party, and an opportunity afforded him to be heard in his defence. The court, it seems, were of opinion that no notice was necessary, and proceeded without it; and, whether this decision was erroneous or not, yet it was made in the exercise of judicial authority, where the subject-matter was within their jurisdiction, and it cannot therefore be revised and annulled in this form of proceeding.

    *16 Upon this view of the subject, it would be useless to grant a rule to show cause; for if the Territorial court made a return stating what they had done, in the precise form in which the sentence of dismissal now appears in the papers exhibited by the relator, a peremptory mandamus could not issue to restore him to the office he has lost.

    The motion must therefore be overruled.