348 U.S. 11 (1954), 27, Offutt v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 27
Citation:348 U.S. 11, 75 S.Ct. 11, 99 L.Ed. 11
Party Name:Offutt v. United States
Case Date:November 08, 1954
Court:United States Supreme Court

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348 U.S. 11 (1954)

75 S.Ct. 11, 99 L.Ed. 11



United States

No. 27

United States Supreme Court

Nov. 8, 1954

Argued October 22, 1954




In a criminal trial in a Federal District Court, the judge became personally embroiled with the defense counsel in a protracted wrangle, during which the judge displayed personal animosity and a lack of proper judicial restraint. At the close of the trial, acting under Rule 42 (a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, the judge summarily found the defense counsel guilty of criminal contempt for "contumacious and unethical conduct . . . during the trial," and ordered him committed for ten days. The Court of Appeals, while agreeing that counsel was guilty of reprehensible misconduct, found that "appellant's conduct cannot fairly be considered apart from that of the trial judge," and reduced the punishment to 48 hours in affirming the conviction.

Held: in the exercise of this Court's supervisory authority over the administration of criminal justice in the federal courts, the contempt conviction is set aside and the cause is remanded to the District Court with a direction that the contempt charges be retried before a different judge. Cooke v. United States, 267 U.S. 517. Pp. 11-18.

93 U.S.App.D.C. 148, 208 F.2d 842, reversed.

FRANKFURTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is here on review of a modified affirmance by the Court of Appeals of an order by the District Court summarily committing the petitioner for criminal contempt.

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The proceeding grew out of the trial of one Peckham for abortion under D.C.Code 1951, § 22-201, 31 Stat. 1322. The petitioner was Peckham's trial counsel. Almost from the outset, a clash between the presiding judge and petitioner became manifest which, it is fair to say, colored the course of the trial throughout its 14 days, and with increasing personal overtones. The judge again and again admonished petitioner for what he deemed disregard of rulings and other behavior outside the allowable limits of aggressive advocacy, and warned him of the consequences by way of punishment for contempt which such conduct invited. On the other hand, these interchanges between court and counsel were marked by expressions, and revealed an attitude which hardly reflected the restraints of conventional judicial demeanor. Such characterization, of necessity, derives from an abiding impression left from a reading of the entire record.

At the close of the trial, after the jury had retired for deliberation, the judge, acting under the procedure prescribed by Rule 42(a) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure1 and invoking the authority of Sacher v. United States, 343 U.S. 1, found the petitioner guilty of criminal contempt on the basis of a certificate filed under the Rule, containing 12 findings of "contumacious, and unethical conduct in open court during the trial," and ordered him committed for 10 days to the custody of the United States Marshal for the District of Columbia.

The Court of Appeals found that four of the 12 findings amply supported the [75 S.Ct. 13] commitment, but reduced the punishment from 10 days to 48 hours. It concluded that


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record does not support the penalty imposed. Appellant's conduct cannot fairly be considered apart from that of the trial judge. Each responded to great provocation from the other. The judge's treatment of appellant, examples of which are included in an appendix to our opinion in Peckham v. United States, ___ U.S.App.D.C. ___, and which is the chief factor in leading a majority of this court to conclude that Peckham's conviction cannot stand, leads us all to conclude that appellant's sentence should be reduced from 10 days to 48 hours.

208 F.2d 842, 843-844. As indicated above, the Court of Appeals reversed Peckham's conviction because it found that the judge's behavior barred the court "from sustaining the judgment as the product of a fair and impartial trial." Peckham v. United States, 93 U.S.App.D.C. 136, 210 F.2d 693, 702.

In view of this Court's "supervisory authority over the administration of criminal justice in the federal courts," McNabb v. United States, 318 U.S. 332, 341, and the importance of assuring alert self-restraint in the exercise by district judges of the summary power for punishing contempt, we brought the case here. 347 U.S. 932.

We shall not retrace the ground so recently covered in the Sacher case, supra. In enforcing Rule 42(a), the Court in that case emphasized its duty to safeguard two indispensable conditions to the fair administration of criminal justice: (1) counsel must be protected in the right of an accused to "fearless, vigorous and effective" advocacy, no matter how unpopular the cause in which it is employed; (2) equally so will this Court "protect the processes of orderly trial, which is the supreme object of the lawyer's calling." 343 U.S. at 13-14. Rule 42(a) was not an innovation. It did not confer power upon district judges not possessed prior to March 21, 1946. 327 U.S. 821. "This rule," the Advisory Committee on the rules of criminal procedure stated,

is substantially a

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restatement of existing law, Ex parte Terry, 128 U.S. 289; Cooke v. United States, 267 U.S. 517, 534.

The pith of this rather extraordinary power to punish without the formalities required by the Bill of Rights for the prosecution of federal crimes generally, is that the necessities of the administration of justice require such summary dealing with obstructions to it. It is a mode of vindicating the majesty of law, in its active manifestation, against obstruction and outrage. The power thus entrusted to a judge is wholly unrelated to his personal sensibilities, be they tender or rugged. But judges also are human, and may, in a human way, quite unwittingly identify offense to self with obstruction to law. Accordingly, this Court has deemed it important that district judges guard against this easy confusion by not sitting themselves in judgment upon misconduct of counsel where the contempt charged is entangled with the judge's personal feeling against the lawyer.

Of course, personal attacks or innuendoes by a lawyer against a judge, with a view to provoking him, only aggravate what may be an obstruction to the trial. The vital point is that, in sitting in judgment on such a misbehaving lawyer, the judge should not himself give vent to personal spleen or respond to a personal grievance. These are subtle matters, for they concern the ingredients of what constitutes justice. Therefore, justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.

Duly mindful of the fact that the exercise of the power of summary punishment for contempt "is a delicate one, and care is needed to avoid arbitrary or [75 S.Ct. 14] oppressive conclusions," this Court, in Cooke v. United States, supra, without in the slightest condoning contemptuous...

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