Ex Parte Tobias Watkins , 28 U.S. 193 ( 1830 )


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  • 28 U.S. 193 (____)
    3 Pet. 193

    EX PARTE TOBIAS WATKINS.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    *196 Messrs Jones and Coxe moved for a rule on the United States.

    *201 Mr Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the court.

    This is a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to bring the body of Tobias Watkins before this court, for the purpose of inquiring into the legality of his confinement in gaol. The petition states that he is detained in prison by virtue of a judgment of the circuit court of the United States, for the county of Washington, in the district of Columbia, rendered in a criminal prosecution carried on against him in that court. A copy of the indictment and judgment is annexed to the petition, and the motion is founded on the allegation that the indictment charges no offence for which the prisoner was punishable in that court, or of which that court could take cognizance; and consequently that the proceedings are coram non judice, and totally void.

    This application is made to a court which has no jurisdiction in criminal cases (3 Cranch, 169;) which could not revise this judgment; could not reverse or affirm it, were the record brought up directly by writ of error. The power, however, to award writs of habeas corpus is conferred expressly on this court by the fourteenth section of the judicial act, and has been repeatedly exercised. No doubt exists respecting the power; the question is, whether this be a case in which it ought to be exercised. The cause of imprisonment is shown as fully by the petitioner as it could appear on the return of the writ; consequently the writ ought not to be awarded, if the court is satisfied that the prisoner would be remanded to prison.

    No law of the United States prescribes the cases in which this great writ shall be issued, nor the power of the court over the party brought up by it. The term is used in the constitution, as one which was well understood; and the judicial act authorises this court, and all the courts of the United States, and the judges thereof, to issue the writ "for the purpose of inquiring into the cause of commitment." This general reference to a power which we are required to exercise, without any precise definition of that power, imposes on us the necessity of making some inquiries into its use, *202 according to that law which is in a considerable degree incorporated into our own. The writ of habeas corpus is a high prerogative writ, known to the common law, the great object of which is the liberation of those who may be imprisoned without sufficient cause. It is in the nature of a writ of error, to examine the legality of the commitment. The English judges, being originally under the influence of the crown, neglected to issue this writ where the government entertained suspicions which could not be sustained by evidence; and the writ when issued was sometimes disregarded or evaded, and great individual oppression was suffered in consequence of delays in bringing prisoners to trial. To remedy this evil the celebrated habeas corpus act of the 31st of Charles II. was enacted, for the purpose of securing the benefits for which the writ was given. This statute may be referred to as describing the cases in which relief is, in England, afforded by this writ to a person detained in custody. It enforces the common law. This statute excepts from those who are entitled to its benefit, persons committed for felony or treason plainly expressed in the warrant, as well as persons convicted or in execution.

    The exception of persons convicted applies particularly to the application now under consideration. The petitioner is detained in prison by virtue of the judgment of a court, which court possesses general and final jurisdiction in criminal cases. Can this judgment be re-examined upon a writ of habeas corpus?

    This writ is, as has been said, in the nature of a writ of error which brings up the body of the prisoner with the cause of commitment. The court can undoubtedly inquire into the sufficiency of that cause; but if it be the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction, especially a judgment withdrawn by law from the revision of this court, is not that judgment in itself sufficient cause? Can the court, upon this writ, look beyond the judgment, and re-examine the charges on which it was rendered. A judgment, in its nature, concludes the subject on which it is rendered, and pronounces the law of the case. The judgment of a court of record whose jurisdiction is final, is as conclusive on all *203 the world as the judgment of this court would be. It is as conclusive on this court as it is on other courts. It puts an end to inquiry concerning the fact, by deciding it.

    The counsel for the prisoner admit the application of these principles to a case in which the indictment alleges a crime cognizable in the court by which the judgment was pronounced; but they deny their application to a case in which the indictment charges an offence not punishable criminally according to the law of the land. But with what propriety can this court look into the indictment? We have no power to examine the proceedings on a writ of error, and it would be strange, if, under colour of a writ to liberate an individual from unlawful imprisonment, we could substantially reverse a judgment which the law has placed beyond our control. An imprisonment under a judgment cannot be unlawful, unless that judgment be an absolute nullity; and it is not a nullity if the court has general jurisdiction of the subject, although it should be erroneous. The circuit court for the district of Columbia is a court of record, having general jurisdiction over criminal cases. An offence cognizable in any court, is cognizable in that court. If the offence be punishable by law, that court is competent to inflict the punishment. The judgment of such a tribunal has all the obligation which the judgment of any tribunal can have. To determine whether the offence charged in the indictment be legally punishable or not is among the most unquestionable of its powers and duties. The decision of this question is the exercise of jurisdiction, whether the judgment be for or against the prisoner. The judgment is equally binding in the one case and in the other; and must remain in full force unless reversed regularly by a superior court capable of reversing it.

    If this judgment be obligatory, no court can look behind it. If it be a nullity, the officer who obeys it is guilty of false imprisonment. Would the counsel for the prisoner attempt to maintain this position?

    Questions which we think analogous to this have been frequently decided in this court. Kemp's Lessee vs. Kennedy et al. 5 Cranch, 173, was a writ of error to a judgment in *204 ejectment, rendered against her in the circuit court of the United States for the district of New Jersey. An inquisition taken under the confiscating acts of New Jersey, had been found against her, on which a judgment of condemnation had been rendered by the inferior court of common pleas for the county of Hunterdon. The land had been sold under this judgment of condemnation, and this ejectment was brought against the purchaser. The title of the plaintiff being resisted under those proceedings, his counsel prayed the court to instruct the jury that they ought to find a verdict for him. The court refused the prayer, and did instruct the jury to find for the defendants. An exception was taken to this direction, and the cause brought before this court by writ of error. On the argument the counsel for the plaintiff made two points. 1. That the proceedings were erroneous. 2. That the judgment was an absolute nullity. He contended that the individual against whom the inquest was found, was not comprehended within the confiscating acts of New Jersey. Consequently, the justice who took the inquisition had no jurisdiction as regarded her. He contended also that the inquisition was entirely insufficient to show that Grace Kemp, whose land had been condemned, was an offender under those acts. He then insisted that the tribunal erected to execute these laws, was an inferior tribunal, proceeding by force of particular statutes out of the course of the common law; it was a jurisdiction limited by the statute, both as to the nature of the offence, and the description of persons over whom it should have cognizance. Every thing ought to have been stated in the proceedings which was necessary to give the court jurisdiction, and to justify the judgment of forfeiture. If the jurisdiction does not appear upon the face of the proceedings, the presumption of law is, that the court had not jurisdiction, and the cause was coram non judice; in which case no valid judgment could be rendered.

    The court said, that however clear it might be in favour of the plaintiff on the first point, it would avail him nothing unless he succeeded on the second.

    The court admitted the law respecting the proceedings *205 of inferior courts in the sense in which that term was used in the English books; and asked, "was the court in which this judgment was rendered an inferior court in that sense of the term?

    "All courts from which an appeal lies, are inferior courts in relation to the appellate courts, before which their judgment may be carried; but they are not therefore inferior courts in the technical sense of those words. They apply to courts of special and limited jurisdiction, which are erected on such principles that their judgments taken alone are entirely disregarded, and the proceedings must show their jurisdiction. The courts of the United States are all of limited jurisdiction, and their proceedings are erroneous if the jurisdiction be not shown upon them. Judgments rendered in such cases may certainly be reversed; but this court is not prepared to say that they are absolute nullities, which may be totally disregarded."

    The court then proceeded to review the powers of the courts of common pleas in New Jersey. They were courts of record, possessing general jurisdiction in civil cases, with the exception of suits for real property. In treason, their jurisdiction was over all who could commit the offence.

    After reviewing the several acts of confiscation, the court said, that they could not be fairly construed to convert the courts of common pleas into courts of limited jurisdiction. They remained the only courts capable of trying the offences described by the laws.

    In the particular case of Grace Kemp, the court said, that "the court of common pleas was constituted according to law; and if an offence had been in fact committed, the accused was amenable to its jurisdiction, so far as respected her property in the state of New Jersey. The question whether this offence was or was not committed, that is, whether the inquest, which is substituted for a verdict on an indictment, did or did not show that the offence had been committed, was a question which the court was competent to decide. The judgment it gave was erroneous; but it is a judgment, and, until reversed, cannot be disregarded."

    *206 This case has been cited at some length, because it is thought to be decisive of that now under consideration.

    Had any offence against the laws of the United States been in fact committed, the circuit court for the district of Columbia could take cognizance of it. The question whether any offence was, or was not committed, that is, whether the indictment did or did not show that an offence had been committed, was a question which that court was competent to decide. If its judgment was erroneous, a point which this court does not determine, still it is a judgment, and, until reversed, cannot be disregarded.

    In Skillern's Executors vs. May's Executors, 6 Cranch, 267, a decree pronounced by the circuit court for the district of Kentucky had been reversed, and the cause was remanded to that court, that an equal partition of the land in controversy might be made between the parties. When the cause again came on before the court below, it was discovered that it was not within the jurisdiction of the court; whereupon the judges were divided in opinion, whether they ought to execute the mandate, and their division was certified to this court. This court certified, that the circuit court is bound to execute its mandate, "although the jurisdiction of the court be not alleged in the pleadings." The decree having been pronounced, although in a case in which it was erroneous for want of the averment of jurisdiction, was nevertheless obligatory as a decree.

    The case of Williams et al. vs. Armroyd et al. 7 Cranch, 423, was an appeal from a sentence of the circuit court for the district of Pennsylvania, dismissing a libel which had been filed for certain goods which had been captured and condemned under the Milan decree. They were sold by order of the governor of the island into which the prize had been carried, and the present possessor claimed under the purchaser. It was contended, that the Milan decree was in violation of the law of nations, and that a condemnation professedly under that decree could not change the right of property. This court affirmed the sentence of the circuit court, restoring the property to the claimant, and said "that *207 the sentence is avowedly made under a decree subversive of the law of nations, will not help the appellant's case in a court which cannot revise, correct, or even examine that sentence. If an erroneous judgment binds the property on which it acts, it will not bind that property the less, because its error is apparent. Of that error, advantage can be taken only in a court which is capable of correcting it."

    The court felt the less difficulty in declaring the edict under which the condemnation had been made to be "a direct and flagrant violation of national law," because the declaration had already been made by the legislature of the union. But the sentence of a court under it was submitted to, as being of complete obligation.

    The cases are numerous, which decide that the judgments of a court of record having general jurisdiction of the subject, although erroneous, are binding until reversed. It is universally understood that the judgments of the courts of the United States, although their jurisdiction be not shown in the pleadings, are yet binding on all the world; and that this apparent want of jurisdiction can avail the party only on a writ of error. This acknowledged principle seems to us to settle the question now before the court. The judgment of the circuit court in a criminal-case is of itself evidence of its own legality, and requires for its support no inspection of the indictments on which it is founded. The law trusts that court with the whole subject, and has not confided to this court the power of revising its decisions. We cannot usurp that power by the instrumentality of the writ of habeas corpus. The judgment informs us that the commitment is legal, and with that information it is our duty to be satisfied.

    The counsel for the petitioner contend, that writs of habeas corpus have been awarded and prisoners liberated in cases similar to this.

    In the United States vs. Hamilton, 3 Dall. 17, the prisoner was committed upon the warrant of the district judge of Pennsylvania, charging him with high treason. He was, after much deliberation, admitted to bail. This was a proceeding contemplated by the thirty-third section of the judicial act, which declares that in cases where the punishment *208 may be death, bail shall not be admitted but by the supreme or a circuit court, or by a justice of the supreme court, or a judge of the district court.

    In the case Ex parte Burford, 3 Cranch, 447, the prisoner was committed originally by the warrant of several justices of the peace for the county of Alexandria. He was brought by a writ of habeas corpus before the circuit court, by which court he was remanded to gaol, there to remain until he should enter into recognizance for his good behaviour for one year. He was again brought before the supreme court on a writ of habeas corpus. The judges were unanimously of opinion that the warrant of commitment was illegal, for want of stating some good cause certain supported by oath. The court added that, "if the circuit court had proceeded, de novo, perhaps it might have made a difference; but this court is of opinion that that court has gone only on the proceedings before the justices. It has gone so far as to correct two of the errors committed, but the rest remain." The prisoner was discharged.

    In the case of Bollman vs. Swartwout, the prisoners were committed by order of the circuit court, on the charge of treason. The habeas corpus was awarded in this case on the same principle on which it was awarded in the case of 3 Dall. 17. The prisoners were discharged, because the charge of treason did not appear to have been committed. In no one of these cases was the prisoner confined under the judgment of a court.

    The case Ex parte Kearney, 7 Wheat. 39, was a commitment by order of the circuit court for the district of Columbia, for a contempt. The prisoner was remanded to prison. The court, after noticing its want of power to revise the judgment of the circuit court in any case where a party had been convicted of a public offence, asked, "if then this court cannot directly revise a judgment of the circuit court in a criminal case, what reason is there to suppose that it was intended to vest it with the authority to do it indirectly." The case Ex parte Kearney bears a near resemblance to that under consideration.

    The counsel for the prisoner rely, mainly, on the case of *209 Wise vs. Withers, 3 Cranch, 330. This was an action of trespass vi et armis, for entering the plaintiff's house and taking away his goods. The defendant justified as collector of the militia fines. The plaintiff replied that he was not subject to militia duty, and on demurrer this replication was held ill. This court reversed the judgment of the circuit court, because a court martial had no jurisdiction over a person not belonging to the militia, and its sentence in such a case being coram non judice, furnishes no protection to the officer who executes it.

    This decision proves only that a court martial was considered as one of those inferior courts of limited jurisdiction, whose judgments may be questioned collaterally. They are not placed on the same high ground with the judgments of a court of record. The declaration, that this judgment against a person to whom the jurisdiction of the court could not extend, is a nullity; is no authority for inquiring into the judgments of a court of general criminal jurisdiction, and regarding them as nullities, if, in our opinion, the court has misconstrued the law, and has pronounced an offence to be punishable criminally, which, as we may think, is not so.

    Without looking into the indictments under which the prosecution against the petitioner was conducted, we are unanimously of opinion that the judgment of a court of general criminal jurisdiction justifies his imprisonment, and that the writ of habeas corpus ought not to be awarded.

    On consideration of the rule granted in this case, on a prior day of this term, to wit, on Tuesday the 26th of January of the present term of this court, and of the arguments thereupon had; it is considered, ordered and adjudged by this court, that the said rule be, and the same is hereby discharged, and that the prayer of the petitioner for a writ of habeas corpus be, and the same is hereby refused.