Blair v. United States Templeton v. Same Phillips v. Same Blair v. United States Templeton v. Same Phillips v. Same

Decision Date02 June 1919
Docket NumberNos. 763-768,s. 763-768
Citation250 U.S. 273,39 S.Ct. 468,63 L.Ed. 979
PartiesBLAIR v. UNITED STATES. TEMPLETON v. SAME. PHILLIPS v. SAME. BLAIR v. UNITED STATES et al. TEMPLETON v. SAME. PHILLIPS v. SAME
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Martin W. Littleton, of New York City, for plaintiffs in error and appellants.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 274-276 intentionally omitted] Mr. Assistant Attorney General Porter, for the United States.

Mr. Justice PITNEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

Three of these cases come here on writs of error, the other three on appeals. The writs bring up final orders adjudging plaintiffs in error guilty of contempt of court because of their refusal to obey an order directing them to answer certain questions asked of them before a federal grand jury, and committing them to the custody of the United States marshal until they should comply. the appeals bring under review final orders discharging writs of habeas corpus sued out by appellants to review their detention under the original orders of commitment and remanding them to the custody of the marshal. Blair, Templeton, and Phillips are plaintiffs in error, as well as appellants.

It appears that in October, 1918, the federal grand jury of the Southern district of New York was making inquiry concerning supposed violations of section 125 of the Criminal Code (Act March 4, 1909, c. 321, 35 Stat. 1111 [Comp. St. § 10295]) (relating to perjury) and of the so-called Corrupt Practices Act of June 25, 1910, ch. 392, 36 Stat. 822, as amended (Comp. St. §§ 188-198), in connection with the verification and filing in that district of reports to the Secretary of the Senate of the Unite States made by a candidate for nomination as Senator at a primary election held in the state of Michigan on August 27, 1918. Phillips was served with a subpoena requiring him to appear and testify before this grand jury. Blair and Templeton were subpoenaed to appear and testify and also to produce certain records, correspondence, and other documentary evidence. All were served in the state of Michigan. They appeared before the grand jury in response to the subpoenas, were severally sworn, and were examined by counsel for the United States. Each witness, after answering preliminary questions, asked that he be informed of the object and purpose of the inquiry and against whom it was directed, whereupon he was informed by counsel for the United States that the inquiry was not directed against him (the witness). After this each witness read to and left with the grand jury a typewritten statement to the effect that upon advice of counsel he refused to answer any questions pertaining to the matter under inquiry, for the reason that the grand jury and the court were without jurisdiction to inquire into the conduct of a campaign in Michigan for the primary election of a United States Senator; that the federal Corrupt Practices Act as amended was unconstitutional; and that no federal court or grand jury in any state had constitutional authority to conduct an inquiry regarding a primary election for United States Senator. Thereupon each witness was asked by counsel for the United States whether he refused to testify for the reason that to do so would incriminate him, to which he made no other answer than to refer to the reasons for his refusal as set forth in his statement.

The grand jury made a written presentment of these facts to the district court, with a prayer that the parties named might be dealt with as contumacious witnesses.

Upon the coming in of the presentment the witnesses appeared in person and by counsel in opposition to the petition of the grand jury and contended that the Corrupt Practices Act as amended was unconstitutional and void, referring to the opinion of this court in United States v. Gradwell, 243 U. S. 476, 487, 37 Sup. Ct. 407, 61 L. Ed. 857. A hearing was had which went to the merits; the minutes of the grand jury were read and made a part of the presentment; and the matter was fully argued.A t the conclusion of the hearing the court directed the witnesses to answer the questions propounded to them before the grand jury. They were again called, were asked the same questions, and again refused to answer for the same reasons before assigned. The grand jury immediately made a further presentment, whereupon the court, after hearing the parties, adjudged appellants guilty of contempt because of their refusal to comply with the order of the court, and remanded them to the custody of the marshal until they should comply.

Being in his custody, each of them presented to the District Court a petition for a writ of habeas corpus; the writ was allowed, returnable forthwith; and the United States district attorney, in behalf of the marshal, made a motion to dismiss the writ, in effect a demurrer to the petition for insufficiency. After hearing, the court discharged the writ and remanded each of the petitioners to the custody of the marshal (253 Fed. 800); and the present writs of error and appeals were allowed.

The principal contention is that the Act of June 25, 1910, chapter 392, 36 Stat. 822, and its amendments (Act of August 19, 1911, c. 33, 37 Stat. 25; Act of Aug. 23, 1912, c. 349, 37 Stat. 360) are unconstitutional in so far as they attempt to regulate and control the selection by political parties at primary elections of candidates for United States Senator to be voted for at the general elections: it being insisted that the authority of Congress under section 4 of article 1 of the Constitution extends only to the definitive general election, and not to pre-election arrangements or devices such as nominating conventions and primaries.

It is maintained further that, because of the invalidity of these statutes, neither the United States District Court nor the federal grand jury has jurisdiction to inquire into primary elections or to indict or try any person for an offense based upon the statutes, and therefore the order committing appellants is null and void.

The same constitutional question was stirred in United States v. Gradwell, 243 U. S. 476, 487, 37 Sup. Ct. 407, 61 L. Ed. 857, but its determination was unnecessary for the decision of the case, and for this reason it was left undetermined, as the opinion states. Considerations of propriety, as well as long-established practice, demand that we refrain from passing upon the constitutionality of an act of Congress unless obliged to do so in the proper performance of our judicial function, when the question is raised by a party whose interests entitle him to raise it.

We do not think the present parties are so entitled, since a brief consideration of the relation of a witness to the proceeding in which he is called will suffice to show that he is not interested to challenge the jurisdiction of court or grand jury over the subject-matter that is under inquiry.

Long before the separation of the American Colonies from the mother country, compulsion of witnesses to appear and testify had become established in England. By Act of 5 Eliz. c. 9, § 12 (1562), provision was made for the service of process out of any court of record, requiring the person served to testify concerning any cause or matter pending in the court, under a penalty of £10, besides damages to be recovered by the party aggrieved. See Havithbury v. Harvey, Cro. Eliz. 131; 1 Leon. 122; Goodwin (or Goodman) v. West, Cro. Car. 522, 540, March 18. When it was that grand juries first resorted to compulsory process for witnesses is not clear. But as early as 1612, in the Countess of Shrewsbury's Case, Lord Bacon is reported to have declared that——

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