346 U.S. 502 (1954), 31, United States v. Morgan

Docket Nº:No. 31
Citation:346 U.S. 502, 74 S.Ct. 247, 98 L.Ed. 248
Party Name:United States v. Morgan
Case Date:January 04, 1954
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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346 U.S. 502 (1954)

74 S.Ct. 247, 98 L.Ed. 248

United States

v.

Morgan

No. 31

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 4, 1954

Argued October 19, 1953

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

Syllabus

By a proceeding in the nature of coram nobis, respondent sought to have a Federal District Court set aside his conviction and sentence in that court for a federal crime, though he had served the full term for which he had been sentenced. He claimed that his conviction was invalid because of denial of his constitutional right to counsel at his trial. He had since been convicted in a state court of another crime, had been sentenced to a longer term as a second offender because of his prior federal conviction, and was still serving the state sentence.

Held: Under the All-Writs Section, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), the Federal District Court had power to issue a writ of error coram nobis; it had power to vacate its judgment of conviction and sentence, and respondent is entitled to an opportunity to show that his federal conviction was invalid. Pp. 503-513.

1. Though respondent's papers disclose some uncertainty as to his choice of a remedy, this Court treats them as adequately presenting a motion in the nature of a writ of error coram nobis, enabling the trial court to properly exercise its jurisdiction. P. 505.

2. Issuance by a Federal District Court of a writ of error coram nobis is authorized by the All-Writs Section, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), and power to issue the writ comprehends the power of the District Court to grant this motion in the nature of coram nobis. Pp. 506-510.

3. Such a motion is a step in the criminal case, and Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, expressly abolishing the writ of error coram nobis in civil cases, is inapplicable. P. 505, n. 4.

4.Rule 35 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, allowing correction of "an illegal sentence at any time," is inapplicable. Pp. 505-506.

5. The provision of 28 U.S.C. § 2255 that a prisoner "in custody" may at any time move the court which imposed the sentence to vacate it, if "in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States," does not supersede all other remedies in the nature of coram nobis. Pp. 510-511.

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6. Continuation of litigation, after final judgment and after exhaustion or waiver of any statutory right of review, should be allowed through the extraordinary remedy of coram nobis only under circumstances compelling such action to achieve justice. P. 511.

7. Where it cannot be deduced from the record whether counsel was properly waived, where no other remedy is available, and where sound reasons exist for failure to seek appropriate earlier relief, a motion in the nature of a writ of coram nobis must be heard by the federal trial court. Pp. 511-512.

8. Since the results of the conviction may persist though the sentence has been served and the power to remedy an invalid sentence exists, respondent is entitled to an opportunity to attempt to show that his conviction was invalid. Pp. 512-513.

202 F.2d 67, affirmed.

In respondent's proceeding in the nature of coram nobis to set aside his conviction and sentence, the Federal District Court denied relief. The Court of Appeals reversed. 202 F.2d 67. This Court granted certiorari. 345 U.S. 974. Affirmed, p. 513.

REED, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This review on certiorari requires us to decide whether a United States District Court has power to vacate its judgment of conviction and sentence after the expiration of the full term of service.

On December 18, 1939, respondent pleaded guilty on a federal charge, in the Northern District of New York, and was given a four-year sentence, which he served. Thereafter, in 1950, he was convicted by a New York

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court on a state charge, sentenced to a longer term as a second offender because of the prior federal conviction,1 and is now incarcerated in a state prison.

As courts of New York State will not review the judgments of other jurisdictions on habeas corpus or coram nobis, People v. McCullough, 300 N.Y. 107, 110, 89 N.E.2d 335, respondent filed an application for a writ of error coram nobis and gave notice of a motion for the writ in the United States District Court where his first sentence was received. Both sought an order voiding the judgment of [74 S.Ct. 249] conviction. The ground was violation of his constitutional rights through failure, without his competent waiver, to furnish him counsel. Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458. The District Court, in an unreported decision, treated the proceeding as a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 22552 and refused relief because it had no jurisdiction as the applicant was no longer in custody under its sentence, citing United States v. Lavelle, 194 F.2d 202, a controlling authority on that point. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed. It held that 28 U.S.C. § 2255 did not supersede "all other remedies which could be invoked in the nature of the common law writ of error coram nobis." As it considered that the remedy sought was of that kind and the application justified a hearing because the error alleged was "of fundamental character," the Court of Appeals reversed and, without passing upon

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the sufficiency of the allegations, directed remand for further proceedings. United States v. Morgan, 202 F.2d 67, 68. Deeming the decision to conflict with United States v. Kerschman, 201 F.2d 682, we granted certiorari. 345 U.S. 974.

The foregoing summary of steps discloses respondent's uncertainty in respect to choice of remedy. The papers are labeled as though they sought a common law writ of error coram nobis, but the notice of the motion indicates that an order voiding the judgment is sought. In behalf of the unfortunates, federal courts should act in doing justice if the record makes plain a right to relief.3 We think a belated effort to set aside the conviction and sentence in the federal criminal case is shown. We therefore treat the record as adequately presenting a motion in the nature of a writ of error coram nobis enabling the trial court to properly exercise its jurisdiction. Adams v. McCann, 317 U.S. 269, 272.4 So treating the motion,

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Rule 35, Fed.Rules [74 S.Ct. 250] Crim.Proc., allowing the correction of "an illegal sentence at any time" is inapplicable. Sentences subject to correction under that rule are those that the judgment of conviction did not authorize.5

Since this motion in the nature of the ancient writ of coram nobis is not specifically authorized by any statute enacted by Congress, the power to grant such relief, if it exists, must come from the all-writs section of the Judicial Code.6 This section originated in the Judiciary Act of 1789,7 and its substance persisted through the Revised Statutes, § 716, and the Judicial Code, § 262, to its present form upholding the judicial power to attain justice for suitors through procedural forms "agreeable to the usages and principles of law."8 If there is power granted to

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issue writs of coram nobis by the all-writs section, we hold it would comprehend the power for the District Court to take cognizance of this motion in the nature of a coram nobis. See note 4, supra. To move by motion instead of by writ is purely procedural. The question, then, is whether the all-writs section gives federal courts power to employ coram nobis.

The writ of coram nobis was available at common law to correct errors of fact.9 It was allowed without limitation of time for facts that affect the "validity and regularity" of the judgment,10 and was used in both civil and criminal cases.11 While the occasions for its use were infrequent, no one doubts its availability at common law.12 Coram nobis has had a continuous, although limited, use also in our states.13 Although the scope of the

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remedy at common law [74 S.Ct. 251] is often described by references to the instances specified by Tidd's Practice, see note 9, supra, its use has been by no means so limited. The House of Lords, in 1844, took cognizance of an objection through the writ based on a failure properly to swear witnesses. See the O'Connell case, note 11, supra. It has been used in the United States with and without statutory authority, but always with reference to its common law scope -- for example, to inquire as to the imprisonment of a slave not subject to imprisonment, insanity of a defendant, a conviction on a guilty plea through the coercion of fear of mob violence, failure to advise of right to counsel.14 An interesting instance of the use of coram nobis by the Court of Errors of New York is found in Davis v. Packard, 8 Pet. 312. It was used by the Court of Errors, and approved by this Court, to correct an error "of fact not apparent on the face of the record" in the trial court, to-wit, the fact that Mr. Davis was consul general of the King of Saxony, and therefore exempt from suit in the state court.

This Court discussed the applicability of a motion in federal courts in the nature of coram nobis in United States v. Mayer, 235 U.S. 55, 67. There, a convicted defendant alleged he discovered through no fault of his, only after the end of the term in which he was convicted, misconduct of an assistant United States attorney and concealed bias of a juror against him, the defendant.

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This Court refused to direct consideration of the motion after the term expired because the remedy, if any, was by writ of error or motion for new trial. As it was not applicable in the circumstances of the Mayer case, this Court refused to say whether a motion coram nobis would ever lie in federal courts.15 This Court has approved correction of...

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