207 U.S. 425 (1908), 96, Williamson v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 96
Citation:207 U.S. 425, 28 S.Ct. 163, 52 L.Ed. 278
Party Name:Williamson v. United States
Case Date:January 06, 1908
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 425

207 U.S. 425 (1908)

28 S.Ct. 163, 52 L.Ed. 278



United States

No. 96

United States Supreme Court

January 6, 1908

Argued December 5, 6, 1907




Where the writ of error is prosecuted directly from this Court on constitutional grounds, but there are errors assigned as to other subjects, this Court has jurisdiction to review the whole case if any constitutional question is adequate to the exercise of jurisdiction. Burton v. United States, 196 U.S. 283.

An objection taken by a member of Congress that he cannot be sentenced during his term of office on the ground that it would interfere with his constitutional privilege from arrest is not frivolous, even though taken during recess of Congress, and such a claim involves a constitutional question sufficient to give this Court jurisdiction to review the judgment by writ of error. Burton v. United States, 196 U.S. 283.

The jurisdiction of this Court to review on direct writ of error depends on the existence of a constitutional question at the time when the writ of error is sued out, and even if that question subsequently and before the

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case is reached becomes an abstract one, jurisdiction remains, and this Court must review the whole case.

If a sentence on a member of Congress is illegal when pronounced because in conflict with his constitutional privilege, it does not become valid by the expiration of the term for which he was elected.

The words "treason, felony and breach of the peace" were used by the framers of the Constitution in § 6, Art. I, and should be construed in the same sense as those words were commonly used and understood in England as applied to the parliamentary privilege, and as excluding from the privilege all arrests and prosecutions for criminal offenses, and confining the privilege alone to arrests in civil cases.

Under § 540, Rev.Stat., the conspiracy to commit a crime against the United States is itself the offense, without reference to whether the crime which the conspirators have conspired to commit is consummated, or agreed upon by the conspirators in all its details. And an indictment charging the accused with a conspiracy to commit the crime of subornation of perjury in proceedings for the purchase of public lands was held in this case to be sufficient, although the precise persons to be suborned, and the time and place of such suborning were not particularized.

On the trial of one charged with conspiracy to commit a crime against the United States in connection with the purchase of public lands, testimony showing the character of the lands and an attempt by the accused to acquire state lands is competent as tending to establish guilty intent, purpose, design, or knowledge, and is admissible if the trial judge so limits its application as to prevent it from improperly prejudicing the accused by showing the commission of other crimes. Holmes v. Goldsmith, 147 U.S. 164.

The rule that where it plainly appears in a criminal case that there is no evidence justifying conviction, this Court will so hold despite a failure to request an instruction for acquittal does not apply to a case where it is not certified, and this Court is not otherwise satisfied, that the bill of exceptions contains the entire evidence, or where the bill of exceptions recites that the plaintiff offered evidence to go to the jury on every material allegation in the indictment.

While one honestly following advice of counsel, which he believes to be correct, cannot be convicted of crime which involves willful and unlawful intent, even if such advice were an inaccurate construction of the law, no man can willfully and knowingly violate the law and excuse himself from the consequences thereof by pleading that he followed advice of counsel.

In a criminal case, doubt must be resolved in favor of the accused, and in this case, held that an indictment for conspiracy to suborn perjury related to statements under § 2 of the Timber and Stone Act, and not in respect to making of final proofs.

Under the Timber and Stone Act of June 3, 1878, 20 Stat. 89, an applicant is not required, after he has made his preliminary sworn statement concerning the bona fides of his application and the absence of any contract

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or agreement in respect to the title, to additionally swear to such facts on final proof, and a regulation of the Land Commissioner exacting such additional statement at the time of final hearing is invalid.

While Congress has given the Land Commissioner power to prescribe regulations to give effect to the Timber and Stone Act, the rules prescribed must be for the enforcement of the statute, and not destructive of the rights which Congress has conferred by the statute.

The facts are stated in the opinion.

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WHITE, J., lead opinion

[28 S.Ct. 165] MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the Court.

The writ of error to review a criminal conviction is prosecuted directly from this Court upon the assumption that rights under the Constitution are involved. The errors assigned, however, relate not only to such question, but also to many other subjects. If there be a constitutional question adequate to the exercise of jurisdiction, the duty exists to review the whole case. Burton v. United States, 196 U.S. 283.

The constitutional question relied on thus arose:

On February 11, 1905, Williamson, plaintiff in error, while a member of the House of Representatives of the United States, was indicted, with two other persons, for alleged violations of Rev.Stat. § 5440, in conspiring to commit the crime of subornation of perjury in proceedings for the purchase of public land under the authority of the law commonly known as the Timber and Stone Act. The defendants were found guilty in the month of September, 1905. On October 14, 1905, when the court was about to pronounce sentence, Williamson, whose term of office as a member of the House of Representatives did not expire until March 4, 1907, protested against the court's passing sentence upon him, and especially to any sentence of imprisonment, on the ground that thereby

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he would be deprived of his constitutional right to go to, attend at, and return from the ensuing session of Congress. The objection was overruled, and Williamson was sentenced to pay a fine and to imprisonment for ten months. Exceptions were taken both to the overruling of the preliminary objection and to the sentence of imprisonment. Upon these exceptions, assignments of error are based which, it is asserted, present a question as to the scope and meaning of that portion of Article I, section 6, clause 1, of the Constitution relating to the privilege of senators and representatives from arrest during their attendance on the session of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same.

At the threshold, it is insisted by the government that the writ of error should be dismissed for want of jurisdiction. This rests upon the proposition that the constitutional question urged is of such a frivolous character as not to furnish a basis for jurisdiction, or, if not frivolous at the time when the sentence was imposed, it is now so. The first proposition assumes that it is so clear that the constitutional privilege does not extend to the trial and punishment, during his term of office, of a congressman for crime, that any assertion to the contrary affords no basis for jurisdiction. It is not asserted that it has ever been finally settled by this Court that the constitutional privilege does not prohibit the arrest and punishment of a member of Congress for the commission of any criminal offense. The contention must rest, therefore, upon the assumption that the text of the Constitution so plainly excludes all criminal prosecutions from the privilege which that instrument accords a congressman as to cause the contrary assertion to be frivolous. But this conflicts with Burton v. United States, supra, where, although the scope of the privilege was not passed upon, it was declared that a claim interposed by a senator of the United States of immunity from arrest in consequence of a prosecution and conviction for a misdemeanor involved a constitutional question of such a character as to give jurisdiction to this Court by direct writ

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of error. It is said, however, that this case differs from the Burton case because there, the trial and conviction was had during a session of the Senate, while here, at the time of the trial, conviction, and sentence, Congress was not in session, and therefore to assert the protection of the constitutional provision is to reduce the claim "to the point of frivolousness." This, however, but assumes that, even if the constitutional privilege embraces the arrest and sentence of a member of Congress for a crime like the one here involved, it is frivolous to assert that the privilege could possibly apply to an arrest and sentence at any other time than during a session of Congress, even although the inevitable result of such arrest and sentence might be an imprisonment which would preclude the possibility of the member's attending an approaching session. We cannot give our assent to the proposition. Indeed, we think, if it be conceded that the privilege which the Constitution creates extends to an arrest for any criminal offense, such privilege would embrace exemption from any exertion of power by way of arrest and prosecution for the commission of crime the effect of which exertion of power would be to prevent a congressman from attending a future as well as a pending session of Congress. The contention that, although there may have been merit in the claim of privilege...

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