267 U.S. 517 (1925), 311, Cooke v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 311
Citation:267 U.S. 517, 45 S.Ct. 390, 69 L.Ed. 767
Party Name:Cooke v. United States
Case Date:April 13, 1925
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 517

267 U.S. 517 (1925)

45 S.Ct. 390, 69 L.Ed. 767



United States

No. 311

United States Supreme Court

April 13, 1925

Argued March 20, 1925




1. On the day following a trial in the district court in which a verdict had been rendered against his client, in a case in which other necessary proceedings remained pending, and while the court was engaged in trying another case, but during a short recess, an attorney at law addressed a letter, marked "personal," to the district judge and caused it to be delivered to him at his chambers next the courtroom, in which the writer not only advised the

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judge of the desire of his client to have another judge try four other cases yet to be heard, and of his own desire to avoid the necessity of filing in those cases an affidavit of bias under § 21, Judicial Code, by inducing the judge voluntarily to withdraw, but also evinced his heat over the judge's conduct in the case lately tried, and characterized it in severe language personally derogatory to the judge. Held that in the latter aspects, the letter was contemptuous. P. 532.

2. When a contempt is committed in open court, it may be adjudged and punished summarily upon the court's own knowledge of the facts, without further proof, without issue or trial, and without hearing an explanation of the motives of the offender. Ex parte Terry, 128 U.S. 289. P. 534.

3. But where the contempt was not in open court, though constituting "misbehavior in the presence of the court" within the meaning of Rev.Stats. 725, due process of law requires charges and that the accused be advised of them and be given a reasonable opportunity to defend or explain, with the assistance of counsel, if requested, and the right to call witnesses in proof of exculpation or extenuation. P. 535.

4. Where the alleged contumacy was committed by sending a letter to the judge in chambers, and eleven days thereafter an order reciting the facts and adjudging contempt was entered and an attachment thereupon issued under which the accused was arrested forthwith and brought before the court and, upon admitting authorship of the letter, was pronounced guilty because of it and of extraneous facts referred to by the judge as in aggravation, and was forthwith punished, without being allowed to secure and consult counsel, prepare his defense and call witnesses, or to make a full personal explanation, held that the procedure was unfair and oppressive, and not due process of law. P. 537.

5. Where conditions do not make it impracticable and the delay will not injure public or private rights, a judge, in a case of contempt consisting of a personal attack upon himself may properly ask that the matter be heard by a fellow judge. P. 539.

6. In this case, decided that the judge who imposed the sentence reversed should invite the Senior Circuit Judge of the Circuit to assign another judge to sit in the second hearing. P. 539.

295 F. 292 reversed.

[45 S.Ct. 390] Clay Cooke and J. L. Walker were each sentenced for thirty days' imprisonment for contempt by the United

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States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The case was taken on error to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed the sentence of Cooke and reversed that of Walker. By certiorari, Cooke's sentence was brought here.

Walker was defendant in a series of suits growing out of the bankruptcy of the Walker Grain Company. One of the cases, numbered 984, after a long jury trial, resulted in a verdict against Walker of $56,000. The next day, while the court was open [45 S.Ct. 391] and engaged in the trial of another cause, and during a 10 minutes' recess for rest and refreshments, Walker, by direction of Cooke, delivered to the district judge in his chambers, adjoining the courtroom, and within a few feet of it, a letter marked "Personal," as follows:

Fort Worth, Texas, February 15, 1923.

Hon. James C. Wilson

Judge U.S. District Court

Fort Worth, Texas

Dear Sir: In re No. 985, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee v. J. L. Walker; in re No. 986, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee v. Mass. Bonding Company et al.; in re 266, Equity, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee v. J. L. Walker; in re 69, Equity, Southwestern Telegraph & Telephone Co. v. J. L. Walker; in re No. 1001, in Bankruptcy, Walker Grain Company.

Referring to the above matters pending in the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Texas at Fort Worth, I beg personally, as a lawyer interested in the cause of justice and fairness in the trial of all litigated matters, and as a friend of the judge of this Court, to suggest that the only order that I will consent to your honor's entering in any of the above-mentioned matters now pending in your honor's court is an order certifying your honor's disqualification on the ground of prejudice and bias to try said matters.

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You having, however, proceeded to enter judgment in the petition for review of the action of the referee on the summary orders against the Farmers' & Mechanics' National Bank and J. L. Walker and Mrs. M. M. Walker, you, of course, would have to pass upon the motion for a new trial in those matters, and also having tried 984, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee v. J. L. Walker, you will, of course, have to pass upon the motion for a new trial in said cause.

I do not like to take the steps necessary to enforce the foregoing disqualification, which to my mind, as a lawyer and an honest man, is apparent.

Therefore, in the interest of friendship and in the interest of fairness, I suggest that the only honorable thing for your honor to do in the above-styled matters is to note your honor's disqualification, or, your honor's qualification having been questioned, to exchange places and permit some judge in whom the defendant and counsel feel more confidence to try these particular matters.

Prior to the trial of cause No. 984, which, as just concluded, I had believed that your honor was big enough and broad enough to overcome the personal prejudice against the defendant Walker, which I knew to exist, but I find that in this fond hope I was mistaken, also my client desired the privilege of laying the whole facts before your honor in an endeavor to overcome the effect of the slanders that have been filed in your honor's court against him personally, and which have been whispered in your honor's ears against him, and in proof of which not one scintilla of evidence exists in any record ever made in your honor's court.

My hopes in this respect having been rudely shattered, I am now appealing purely to your honor's dignity as a judge and sense of fairness as a man to do as in this letter requested, and please indicate to me at the earliest moment your honor's pleasure with respect to the matters

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herein presented, so that further steps may be avoided.

With very great respect, I beg to remain,

Yours most truly,


Eleven days after this, on the 26th of February, the court directed an order to be entered with a recital of facts concluding as follows:

Therefore, since the matters of fact set forth herein are within the personal knowledge of the judge of this court, and since it is the view of this court that said letter as a whole is an attack upon the honor and integrity of the court, wherein it charges that the judge of this court is not big enough and broad enough to truly pass upon matters pending therein, and wherein it charges in effect that the judge of this court has allowed himself to be improperly approached and influenced and whispered to by interested parties against a litigant in the court, and since it is the view of this court that such an act by a litigant and his attorney constitutes misbehavior, and a contempt under the law, and that the threats and impertinence and insult in said letter were deliberately and designedly offered, with intent to intimidate and improperly influence the court in matters then pending and soon to be passed upon, and to destroy the independence and impartiality of the court in these very matters, it is ordered that an attachment immediately issue for the said J. L. Walker and Clay Cooke, and that the marshal of this court produce them instanter before this court to show cause, if any they have, why they should not be punished for contempt.

The marshal arrested the defendants and brought them to court. The following statement shows in substance what then occurred:

Judge Wilson: At this time, I will call the contempt matter against Clay Cooke and J. L. Walker, attachment having been issued for these respondents.

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I have requested Judge J. M. McCormick, of Dallas, to be present and act as a friend of the court in this proceeding, and have also requested the district attorney, it being in its nature a criminal matter, to act.

Mr. Clay Cooke said that he had not known of the attachment until that morning, that he would like time to prepare for trial and get witnesses for their defense, that there might be extenuating circumstances which would appeal to the court's sense of fairness and justice in fixing whatever penalty might be imposed, and that he had attempted to secure counsel, but through illness or absence of those he sought, he had failed up to that time.

Judge Wilson intimated that he would not postpone the matter, and said:

There is just this question involved, and, as stated by counsel representing the court, these facts are within the personal knowledge of this court. Did you deliver this letter to the judge of this court?

[45 S.Ct. 392]

Mr. Clay Cooke: Is your honor asking me?

Judge Wilson: I am stating the question -- and does that, under the law constitute contempt? If you have any defense, you have not suggested any. This court would be glad to give you ample time to file any pleadings pertinent and...

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