362 U.S. 574 (1960), 38, Parker v. Ellis

Docket Nº:No. 38
Citation:362 U.S. 574, 80 S.Ct. 909, 4 L.Ed.2d 963
Party Name:Parker v. Ellis
Case Date:May 16, 1960
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 574

362 U.S. 574 (1960)

80 S.Ct. 909, 4 L.Ed.2d 963




No. 38

United States Supreme Court

May 16, 1960

Argued January 20, 1960




This Court granted certiorari to review dismissal of petitioner's application for habeas corpus, in which he claimed that his conviction in a state court violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Before the case could be heard here, petitioner was released from imprisonment after having served his sentence less time off for good behavior.

Held: the case has become moot, this Court is without jurisdiction to deal with the merits of petitioner's claim, and the writ of certiorari is dismissed for want of jurisdiction. Pp. 574-576.

Reported below: 258 F.2d 937.

Per curiam opinion.


This is an application for a writ of habeas corpus brought in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas alleging unlawful detention under a sentence of imprisonment following a trial in the state court in which petitioner was, according to his claim, denied due process of law as guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. After hearing, the District Court dismissed the petition. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, with one judge dissenting, affirmed the order of dismissal, 258 F.2d 937, to which opinion reference is made for the facts. A petition for certiorari to

Page 575

review this judgment presented so impressive a showing for the exercise of this Court's discretionary jurisdiction that the case was brought here with leave to the petitioner to proceed in forma pauperis, 359 U.S. 924, and his motion for the assignment of counsel was duly granted. 359 U.S. 951.

Before the case could come to he heard here, the petitioner was released from the state prison after having served his sentence with time off for good behavior. The case has thus become moot, and the Court is without jurisdiction to deal with the merits of petitioner's claim.

The purpose of the proceeding defined by the statute [authorizing the writ of habeas corpus to be issued] was to inquire into the legality of the detention, and the only judicial relief authorized was the discharge of the prisoner or his admission to bail.

McNally v. Hill, 293 U.S. 131, 136. "Without restraint of liberty, the writ will not issue." Id., 138. See also Johnson v. Hoy, 227 U.S. 245. *

It is well settled that this court will not proceed to adjudication where there is no subject matter on which the judgment of the court can operate.

Ex parte Baez, 177 U.S. 378, 390. We have applied these principles to deny the writ of certiorari for mootness on the express ground that petitioner was no longer in respondent's custody in at least three cases not relevantly [80 S.Ct. 911] different from the present one. Weber v. Squier, 315 U.S. 810; Tornello v. Hudspeth, 318 U.S. 792; Zimmerman v. Walker,

Page 576

319 U.S. 744. In all these cases, there was custody as the basis for habeas corpus jurisdiction until the cases reached here. In Weber, the respondent's custody ceased because the petitioner had received the benefits of the United States Parole Act. In Tornello, the petitioner had been pardoned, and was no longer in the custody of anyone. In Zimmerman, petitioner had been unconditionally released, and was also no longer in the custody of anyone. These cases demonstrate that it is a condition upon this Court's jurisdiction to adjudicate an application for habeas corpus that the petitioner be in custody when that jurisdiction can become effective. It is precisely because a denial of a petition for certiorari, without more, has no significance as a ruling that an explicit statement of the reason for a denial means what it says. Accordingly, the writ of certiorari is dismissed for want of jurisdiction.

Since the case has become moot before the error complained of in the judgment below could be adjudicated, the case is remanded to the Court of Appeals to vacate its judgment and to direct the District Court to vacate its order and dismiss the application.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, joined by MR. JUSTICE CLARK, also considers this case moot on a further ground. It appears that petitioner has outstanding against him felony convictions in a number of other States. Under Texas law, any one of those convictions would carry the same consequences with respect to petitioner's exercise of civil rights in Texas (Election Code Art. 5.01) as his conviction in this case. See Harwell v. Morris, 143 S.W.2d 809, 812-813. This Court is as much bound by constitutional restrictions on its jurisdiction as it is by other constitutional requirements. The "moral stigma of a judgment which no longer affects legal rights does not present a case or controversy for appellate review." St. Pierre v. United States, 319 U.S. 41, 43.

Page 577

WARREN, J., dissenting


If the Court is right in holding that George Parker's five-year quest for justice must end ignominiously in the limbo of mootness, surely something is badly askew in our system of criminal justice. I am convinced the Court is wrong. Even assuming arguendo that we could not enter a nunc pro tunc order, I believe that we still would be able to grant relief.

We have here the case of a man who was convicted of a felony in flagrant disregard of his constitutional right to assistance of counsel. Since the Court terms his claim an "impressive" one, lengthy discussion of its merits is unnecessary. Still, it is not amiss briefly to describe what it is the Court here declines to decide.

In 1954, petitioner was tried in the District Court of Moore County, Texas, on a charge of forging a check. He was then 67 years of age, and, respondent concedes, in "failing health." The judge refused to appoint counsel to represent him.1 He was convicted, and received a [80 S.Ct. 912] sentence

Page 578

of seven years. To any lawyer's eye -- and it is not at all clear that the restriction to lawyers is warranted -- his trial was a sham. Although the testimony directly bearing on the issue of forgery was not strong,2 petitioner's conviction is hardly surprising, for the prosecution's case consisted in large part of a potent melange of assorted types of inadmissible evidence -- introduced without objection by petitioner.3 But petitioner suffered as much from errors of omission as he did from errors of commission. Petitioner now alleges -- and respondent does not deny -- that the victim of the alleged forgery was

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petitioner's mother-in-law, and that the principal prosecution witness was his brother-in-law, a "bitter enemy";4 but petitioner introduced no evidence to this effect at the trial.5 Nor is this strange, for petitioner's halting attempts to defend himself disclose his utter ineptness in the courtroom. After the prosecution had examined its witnesses -- unhampered by searching cross-examination -- petitioner conducted what respondent terms "a premeditated type of defense which might have been successful on another jury."


Direct examination by Mr. Parker:

Q. Ted, you go ahead and tell the court about my condition and how you have known me -- tell the jury?

A. Well, do I understand it right?

Q. Huh?

A. You mean your physical condition, so forth and so on?

Q. Yes. Just go ahead and tell the jury about what you know.

A. Well, his physical condition, according to everything, is bad or at least, [80 S.Ct. 913] the doctors say so, you know. I couldn't -- as far as the checks, I don't

Page 580

know, but I do know that he needs medical care. Is that what you meant, George?

Q. Yes, I guess so; just go ahead and tell them what you know about me. That is all -- only -- that is all I want to ask -- I am just leaving mine up to them, you know?

THE COURT. Do you know what he is driving at -- what he wants?

A. Well, if I understood it, the condition, you know --

THE COURT. That is up to you, too.

[THE PROSECUTOR]. You got anything else?

MR. PARKER. No. Go ahead and ask him.


THE COURT. Are you through?

MR. PARKER. Judge, here are some letters I would like for the jury to see.

THE COURT. We can't give the letters to the jury.

MR. PARKER. For -- from the doctors?

THE COURT. No, sir.

MR. PARKER. That is all.

This is enough to give the flavor of the "trial." It is difficult to recall a case which more clearly illustrates the helplessness of the layman when called upon to defend himself against a criminal charge. Judge, now Chief Judge, Rives, who dissented from the judgment of the Court of Appeals, was clearly correct in stating:

Upon such a record, it would appear that Parker's efforts to defend himself were little short of farcical. In view of the small amounts of the checks, his family connection with the Quattlebaums, and the open way in which the checks were payable to and endorsed by Parker, it is quite possible that he may have had a defense to the charge of forgery, or at least that mitigating

Page 581

circumstances might have been shown. The record . . . shows that he suffered badly from the lack of assistance of counsel, and tends to corroborate his claim of extreme illness.

258 F.2d 937, 944.

But George Parker's unhappy experience with the law was not destined to end with the trial. Instead, time after time, the courts have turned aside his applications for redress. There has hardly been a minute in the past five years that Parker's case has not been before a court. He was convicted in November, 1954, and on March 23, 1955, the Court of...

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