514 U.S. 695 (1995), 94-172, Hubbard v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 94-172
Citation:514 U.S. 695, 115 S.Ct. 1754, 131 L.Ed.2d 779, 63 U.S.L.W. 4393
Party Name:HUBBARD v. United States
Case Date:May 15, 1995
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 695

514 U.S. 695 (1995)

115 S.Ct. 1754, 131 L.Ed.2d 779, 63 U.S.L.W. 4393



United States

No. 94-172

United States Supreme Court

May 15, 1995

Argued February 21, 1995



Petitioner's falsehoods in unsworn papers filed in Bankruptcy Court prompted his indictment under 18 U.S.C. § 1001, which criminalizes false statements and similar misconduct occurring "in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States." He was convicted after the District Court, relying on United States v. Bramblett, 348 U.S. 503, instructed the jury that a bankruptcy court is a "department of the United States" within § 1001's meaning. In affirming, the Court of Appeals concluded that the so-called "judicial function" exception developed in other Circuits, under which § 1001 reaches false statements made while a court is performing its "administrative" or "housekeeping" functions, but not its adjudicative functions, does not exist.


The judgment is reversed in part.

16 F.3d 694, reversed in part.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, and VI, concluding that, because a federal court is neither a "department" nor an "agency" within § 1001's meaning, the statute does not apply to false statements made in judicial proceedings. Pp. 699-708, 715.

(a) A straightforward interpretation of § 1001's text, with special emphasis on the words "department or agency," leads inexorably to the conclusion that there is no need for any judicial function exception because the statute's reach simply does not extend to courts. Under both a commonsense reading and the terms of 18 U.S.C. § 6—which applies to all of Title 18 and defines "agency" to include, inter alia, any federal "department, independent establishment, commission, administration, authority, board or bureau"—it seems incontrovertible that "agency" does not refer to a court. Moreover, although § 6 defines "department" to mean an "executive departmen[t]. . . unless the context shows that such term was intended to describe the . . . legislative. . . or judicial branches," there is nothing in § 1001's text, or in any related legislation, that even suggests—let alone "shows"—that something other than a component of the Executive Branch was intended in this instance. Pp. 699-702.

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(b) The Bramblett Court erred by giving insufficient weight to the plain language of §§ 6 and 1001 and, instead, broadly interpreting "department" in § 1001 to refer to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches. Rather than attempting to reconcile its interpretation with the usual meaning of "department," that Court relied on a review of the evolution of § 1001 and a related statute as providing a "context" for the conclusion that "Congress could not have intended to leave frauds such as [Bramblett's] without penalty." 348 U.S., at 509. Although a statute's historical evolution should not be discounted, such an analysis normally provides less guidance to meaning than the final text. Here, a straightforward reading suggests a meaning of "department" that is fully consistent with § 6's presumptive definition. Moreover, the statutory history chronicled in Bramblett is at best inconclusive and does not supply a "context" sufficiently clear to warrant departure from that definition. Pp. 702-708.

(c) Bramblett is hereby overruled. P. 715.

Justice Stevens, joined by Justice Ginsburg and Justice Breyer, concluded in Parts IV and V:

1. A review of pertinent lower court decisions demonstrates that the judicial function exception is an obvious attempt to impose limits on Bramblett 's expansive reading of § 1001 and that the exception has a substantial and longstanding following. Pp. 708-711.

2. The doctrine of stare decisis does not require this Court to accept Bramblett 's erroneous interpretation of § 1001. Reconsideration of that case is permitted here (1) because of a highly unusual intervening development of the law—the judicial function exception—which is fairly characterized as a competing legal doctrine that can lay a legitimate claim to respect as a settled body of law, and (2) because of the absence of significant reliance interests in adhering to Bramblett on the part of prosecutors and Congress. Pp. 711-715.

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Kennedy, agreed that United States v. Bramblett, 348 U.S. 503, should be overruled, but concluded that the doctrine of stare decisis may be ignored in this case not because the judicial function exception represents an intervening development of the law, but because of the demonstration, over time, that Bramblett's mistaken reading of § 1001 poses a risk that the threat of criminal prosecution under § 1001's capacious provisions will deter vigorous representation of opposing interests in adversarial litigation, particularly representation of criminal defendants, whose adversaries control the machinery of § 1001 prosecution. That problem can be judicially avoided (absent overruling) only by limiting Bramblett in a manner that is irrational or by importing exceptions, such as the judicial function exception, that have no basis in law. Pp. 716-717.

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Stevens, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, III, and VI, in which Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Breyer, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts IV and V, in which Ginsburg and Breyer, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Kennedy, J., joined, post, p. 716. Rehnquist, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'Connor and Souter, JJ., joined, post, p. 718.

Paul Morris argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the brief was Andrew Boros.

Richard P. Bress argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Assistant Attorney General Harris, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and Joel M. Gershowitz.

Justice Stevens delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Parts IV and V.[*]

In unsworn papers filed in a bankruptcy proceeding, petitioner made three false statements of fact. Each of those misrepresentations provided the basis for a criminal conviction and prison sentence under the federal false statement statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1001. The question we address is whether § 1001 applies to false statements made in judicial proceedings.


In 1985, petitioner filed a voluntary petition for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. In the course of the proceedings, the trustee filed an amended complaint and a motion to compel petitioner to surrender certain business records. Petitioner opposed the relief sought by the trustee in a pair of unsworn, written responses filed with the Bankruptcy Court. Both of his responses contained falsehoods. Petitioner's answer to the trustee's complaint falsely denied the trustee's allegations that a well-drilling machine and parts for the machine were stored at petitioner's

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home and in a nearby warehouse. Petitioner's response to the trustee's discovery motion incorrectly stated that petitioner had already turned over all of the requested records.

When the misrepresentations came to light, petitioner was charged with three counts of making false statements under 18 U.S.C. § 1001.[1] That statute provides:

"Whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact, or makes any false, fictitious or fraudulent statements or representations, or makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any false, fictitious or fraudulent statement or entry, shall be fined not more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."

Relying on our decision in United States v. Bramblett, 348 U.S. 503 (1955), the District Court instructed the jury that a bankruptcy court is a "department . . . of the United States" within the meaning of § 1001. The jury convicted petitioner on all three § 1001 counts, and the District Court sentenced him to concurrent terms of 24 months' imprisonment.

On appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, petitioner argued that his convictions under § 1001 were barred by the so-called "judicial function" exception. First suggested over 30 years ago in Morgan v. United States, 309 F.2d 234 (CADC 1962), cert. denied, 373 U.S. 917 (1963), this doctrine limits the extent to which § 1001 reaches conduct occurring in the federal courts. Under the exception, only those misrepresentations falling within a court's "administrative" or "housekeeping" functions can give rise to liability

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under § 1001; false statements made while a court is performing its adjudicative functions are not covered.

The Court of Appeals affirmed petitioner's convictions under § 1001. Although the judicial function exception has become entrenched over the years in a number of Circuits, the Sixth Circuit concluded, over a dissent, that the exception does not exist. 16 F.3d 694 (1994). That conclusion created a split in the Circuits, prompting us to grant certiorari.[2] 513 U.S. 959 (1994). We now reverse.


Section 1001 criminalizes false statements and similar misconduct occurring "in any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States." In ordinary parlance, federal courts are not described as "departments" or "agencies" of the Government. As noted by the Sixth Circuit, it would be strange indeed to refer to a...

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