349 U.S. 133 (1955), 405, In re Murchison

Docket Nº:No. 405
Citation:349 U.S. 133, 75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942
Party Name:In re Murchison
Case Date:May 16, 1955
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 133

349 U.S. 133 (1955)

75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942

In re Murchison

No. 405

United States Supreme Court

May 16, 1955

Argued April 20, 1955



A Michigan state judge served as a "one-man grand jury" under Michigan law in investigating crime. Later, the same judge, after a hearing in open court, adjudged two of the witnesses guilty of contempt and sentenced them to punishment for events which took place before him in the grand jury proceedings.

Held: their trial and conviction for contempt before the same judge violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 133-139.

The power of a trial judge to punish for a contempt committed in his immediate presence in open court is not applicable to the contempt proceeding here. P. 137.

340 Mich. 140, 65 N.W.2d 296, and 340 Mich. 151, 65 N.W.2d 301, reversed.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Michigan law authorizes any judge of its courts of record to act as a so-called "one-man grand jury."1 He can compel witnesses to appear before him in secret to testify about suspected crimes. We have previously held that such a Michigan "judge-grand jury" cannot, consistently with the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, summarily convict a witness of contempt for

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conduct in the secret hearings. In re Oliver, 333 U.S. 257. We held that, before such a conviction could stand, due process requires, as a minimum, that an accused be given a public trial after reasonable notice of the charges, have a right to examine witnesses against him, call witnesses on his own behalf, and be represented by counsel. The question now before us is whether a contempt proceeding conducted in accordance with these standards complies with the due process requirement of an impartial tribunal where the same judge presiding at the contempt hearing had also served as the "one-man grand jury" out of which the contempt charges arose. This does not involve, of course, the long-exercised power of courts summarily to punish certain conduct occurring in open court.2

The petitioners, Murchison and White, were called as witnesses before a "one-man judge-grand jury." Murchison, a Detroit policeman, was interrogated at length in the judge's secret hearings, where questions were asked him about suspected gambling in Detroit and bribery of policemen. His answers left the judge persuaded that he had committed perjury, particularly in view of other evidence before the "judge-grand jury." The judge then charged Murchison with perjury, and ordered him to appear and show cause why he should not be punished for criminal contempt.3 White, the other petitioner, was

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also summoned to appear as a witness in the same "one-man grand jury" hearing. Asked numerous questions about gambling and bribery, he refused to answer on the ground that he [75 S.Ct. 625] was entitled under Michigan law to have counsel present with him. The "judge-grand jury" charged White with contempt and ordered him to appear and show cause. The judge who had been the "grand jury" then tried both petitioners in open court, convicted and sentenced them for contempt. Petitioners objected to being tried for contempt by this particular judge for a number of reasons, including: (1) Michigan law expressly provides that a judge conducting a "one-man grand jury" inquiry will be disqualified from hearing or trying any case arising from his inquiry or from hearing any motion to dismiss or quash any complaint or indictment growing out of it, or from hearing any charge of contempt "except alleged contempt for neglect or refusal to appear in response to a summons or subpoena"; (2) trial before the judge who was at the same time the complainant, indicter and prosecutor constituted a denial of the fair and impartial trial required by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The trial judge answered the first challenge by holding that the state statute barring him from trying the contempt cases violated the Michigan Constitution on the ground that it would deprive a judge of inherent power to punish contempt. This interpretation of the Michigan Constitution is binding here. As to the second challenge,

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the trial judge held that due process did not forbid him to try the contempt charges. He also rejected other constitutional contentions made by petitioners. The State Supreme Court sustained all the trial judge's holdings, and affirmed.4 Importance of the federal constitutional questions raised caused us to grant certiorari.5 The view we take makes it unnecessary for us to consider or decide any of those questions except the due process challenge to trial by the judge who had conducted the secret "one-man grand jury" proceedings.6

A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process. Fairness, of course, requires an absence of actual bias in the trial of cases. But our system of law has always endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness. To this end, no man can be a judge in his own case, and no man is permitted to try cases where he has an interest in the outcome. That interest cannot be defined with precision. Circumstances and relationships must be considered. This Court has said, however, that

Every procedure which would offer a possible temptation to the average man as a judge . . . not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true between the State and the accused denies the latter due process of law.

Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510, 532. Such a stringent rule may sometimes bar trial by judges who have no actual bias and who would do their very best to weigh the scales of justice equally between contending parties. But, to perform its high function in the best way, "justice must satisfy the appearance of justice." Offutt v. United States, 348 U.S. 11, 14.

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It would be very strange if our system of law permitted a judge to act as a grand jury and then try the very persons accused as a result of his investigations. Perhaps no State has ever forced a defendant to accept grand jurors as proper trial jurors to pass on charges growing out of their hearings.7 A single "judge-grand jury" is even more a part of the accusatory process than an ordinary lay grand juror. Having been a part of that process, a [75 S.Ct. 626] judge cannot be, in the very nature of things, wholly disinterested in the conviction or acquittal of those accused. While he would not likely have all the zeal of a prosecutor, it can certainly not be said that he would have none of that zeal.8 Fair trials are too important a part of our free society to let prosecuting judges be trial judges of the charges they prefer.9 It is true that contempt committed in a trial courtroom can under some circumstances be punished summarily by the trial judge. See Cooke v. United States, 267 U.S. 517, 539. But adjudication by a trial judge of a contempt committed in his immediate presence in open court cannot be likened to the proceedings here. For we held in the Oliver case that a person charged with contempt before a "one-man grand jury" could not be summarily tried.

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As a practical matter, it is difficult if not impossible for a judge to free himself from the influence of what took place in his "grand-jury" secret session. His recollection of that is likely to weigh far more heavily with him than any testimony given in the open hearings. That it sometimes does is illustrated by an incident which occurred in White's case. In finding White guilty of contempt, the trial judge said,

there is one thing the record does not show, and that was Mr. White's attitude, and I must say that his attitude was almost insolent in the manner in which he answered questions and his attitude upon the witness stand. . . . Not only was the personal attitude insolent, but it was defiant, and I want to put that on the record.

In answer to defense counsel's motion to strike these statements because they were not part of the original record the judge said, "That is something . . . that wouldn't appear on the record, but it would be very evident to the court." Thus, the judge, whom due process requires to be impartial in weighing the evidence presented before him, called on his own personal knowledge and impression...

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