Cooke v. United States, 311

Decision Date13 April 1925
Docket NumberNo. 311,311
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Clay Cooke and J. L. Walker were each sentenced to 30 days' imprisonment for contempt by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The case was taken on error to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which affirmed the sentence of Cooke and reversed that of Walker. By certiorari, Cooke's sentence was brought here.

Walker was defendant in a series of suits growing out of the bankruptcy of the Walker Grain Company. One of the cases, numbered 984, after a long jury trial resulted in a verdict against Walker of $56,000. The next day, while the court was open and engaged in the trial of another cause, and during a 10 minutes' recess for rest and refreshments, Walker, by direction of Cooke, delivered to the District Judge in his chambers, adjoining the courtroom, and within a few feet of it, a letter marked 'Personal,' as follows:

'Fort Worth, Texas, February 15, 1923.

'Hon. James C. Wilson, Judge U. S. District Court, Fort Worth, Texas—Dear Sir: In re No. 985, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee, v. J. L. Walker; in re No. 986, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee, v. Mass. Bonding Company et al.; in re 266, Equity, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee v. J. L. Walker; in re 69, Equity, Southwestern Telegraph & Telephone Co. v. J. L. Walker; in re No. 1001, in Bankruptcy, Walker Grain Company.

'Referring to the above matters pending in the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Texas, at Fort Worth, I beg personally, as a lawyer interested in the cause of justice and fairness in the trial of all litigated matters, and as a friend of the judge of this court, to suggest that the only order that I will consent to your honor's entering in any of the above-mentioned matters now pending in your honor's court is an order certifying your honor's disqualification on the ground of prejudice and bias to try said matters.

'You having, however, proceeded to enter judgment in the petition for review of the action of the referee on the summary orders against the Farmers' & Mechanics' National Bank and J. L. Walker and Mrs. M. M. Walker, you, of course, would have to pass upon the motion for a new trial in those matters, and also having tried 984, W. W. Wilkinson, Trustee, v. J. L. Walker, you will, of course, have to pass upon the motion for a new trial in said cause.

'I do not like to take the steps necessary to enforce the foregoing disqualification, which to my mind, as a lawyer and an honest man, is apparent.

'Therefore, in the interest of friendship and in the interest of fairness, I suggest that the only honorable thing for your honor to do in the above-styled matters is to note your honor's disqualification, or, your honor's qualification having been questioned, to exchange places and permit some judge in whom the defendant and counsel feel more confidence to try these particular matters.

'Prior to the trial of cause No. 984, which, as just concluded, I had believed that your honor was big enough and broad enough to overcome the personal prejudice against the defendant Walker, which I knew to exist, but I find that in this fond hope I was mistaken, also my client desired the privilege of laying the whole facts before your honor in an endeavor to overcome the effect of the slanders that have been filed in your honor's court against him personally, and which have been whispered in your honor's ears against him, and in proof of which not one scintilla of evidence exists in any record ever made in your honor's court.

'My hopes in this respect having been rudely shattered, I am now appealing purely to your honor's dignity as a judge and sense of fairness as a man to do as in this letter requested, and please indicate to me at the earliest moment your honor's pleasure with respect to the mat- ters herein presented, so that further steps may be avoided.

'With very great respect, I beg to remain, Clay Cooke.'

'Yours most truly,

Eleven days after this, on the 26th of February, the court directed an order to be entered with a recital of facts concluding as follows:

'Therefore, since the matters of fact set forth herein are within the personal knowledge of the judge of this court, and since it is the view of this court that said letter as a whole is an attack upon the honor and integrity of the court, wherein it charges that the judge of this court is not big enough and broad enough to truly pass upon matters pending therein, and wherein it charges in effect that the judge of this court has allowed himself to be improperly approached and influenced and whispered to by interested parties against a litigant in the court, and since it is the view of this court that such an act by a litigant and his attorney constitutes misbehavior, and a contempt under the law, and that the threats and impertinence and insult in said letter were deliberately and designedly offered, with intent to intimidate and improperly influence the court in matters then pending and soon to be passed upon, and to destroy the independence and impartiality of the court in these very matters, it is ordered that an attachment immediately issue for the said J. L. Walker and Clay Cooke, and that the marshal of this court produce them instanter before this court to show cause, if any they have, why they should not be punished for contempt.'

The marshal arrested the defendants and brought them to court. The following statement shows in substance what then occurred:

'Judge Wilson: At this time I will call the contempt matter against Clay Cooke and J. L. Walker, attachment having been issued for these respondents.

I have requested Judge J. M. McCormick, of Dallas, to be present and act as a friend of the court in this proceeding, and have also requested the district attorney, it being in its nature a criminal matter, to act.'

Mr. Clay Cooke said that he had not known of the attachment until that morning, that he would like time to prepare for trial and get witnesses for their defense, that there might be extenuating circumstances which would appeal to the court's sense of fairness and justice in fixing whatever penalty might be imposed and that he had attempted to secure counsel, but through illness or absence of those he sought he had failed up to that time.

Judge Wilson intimated that he would not postpone the matter, and said:

'There is just this question involved, and, as stated by counsel representing the court, these facts are within the personal knowledge of this court. Did you deliver this letter to the judge of this court?

'Mr. Clay Cooke: Is your honor asking me?

'Judge Wilson: I am stating the question—and does that under the law constitute contempt? If you have any defense, you have not suggested any. This court would be glad to give you ample time to file any pleadings pertinent and secure any evidence that might support or tend to support it, but unless you desire now to state that you have some defense you care to file and present, and indicate what that defense is to this charge, then I shall direct that this proceeding go forward, and you are fully protected, since the higher courts are open to you to correct any error, even to the Supreme Court, that the judge of this court might commit here. Now if you have any defense that is pertinent to this order, state what it is.'

Mr. Cooke began to dictate a statement to be filed by him, to the effect that he and Walker believed that they had a good defense, and that the matters of fact stated in the letter as to the bias and prejudice of the judge were true.

'The Court: That does not constitute any defense.

'Mr. Clay Cook: I'll state, then, something otherwise——

'Judge Wilson: Repeating the insult does not constitute any defense.

'Mr. Clay Cooke: I am not trying to repeat the insult, if your honor please. * * * I am now stating my good faith.

'Judge Wilson: I mean this, that the court is not permitting it stated—you may, if you regard that as proper, you may state it in your bill of exceptions in concluding the record.

'Mr. Clay Cooke: That affiant had heretofore been on friendly relations with said Judge James C. Wilson——

'Judge Wilson: That is a matter that is wholly immaterial here; it don't make any difference how friendly.

'Mr. Clay Cooke: I am stating my good faith in writing the letter. And affiant believed in writing said letter that he would relieve the said judge of the embarrassment of filing the necessary statutory affidavits of disqualification, and if said letter——

'Judge Wilson: Now the court is not caring anything about your suggesting the disqualification of the court; that is your right before these important trials, but you did not avail yourself of that privilege. You understood as a lawyer how to proceed in order to suggest the disqualification of the judge.

'Mr. Clay Cooke: I am going to state why I did not proceed——

'Judge Wilson: That does not constitute any defense to this contempt charge.

'Mr. Clay Cooke: Can I put that in about writing the letter? Can I put that in later?

'Judge Wilson: You may.

'Mr. Clay Cooke: That affiant wrote said letter without any intention on his part of incurring contempt proceedings, and without any thought of contempt, and believed that said letter would not be so construed; that affiant has the highest regard for this court as a judge; that affiant believed in good faith the court had heard things concerning——'

Then Mr. McCormick, for the court, interposed an objection that there ought not to be an accentuation of the contempt in the letter by a repetition of innuendoes and reflections on the court or by including them in the record.

Mr. Clay Cooke said he had dictated and sent the letter after advising with reputable counsel, who had read it and believed it proper.

'The letter itself was not carefully read by myself.'

'Judge Wilson: I would like to know who said...

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