Ex parte Lange

Citation85 U.S. 163,21 L.Ed. 872,18 Wall. 163
Decision Date01 October 1873
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

ON petition for writs of habeas corpus and certiorari.

Edward Lange filed a petition to this court at a former day, praying for a writ of habeas corpus to the marshal for the Southern District of New York, on the allegation that he was unlawfully imprisoned under an order of the Circuit Court of the United States for that district. On consideration of the petition, the court was of opinion that the facts which it alleged very fairly raised the question whether the Circuit Court, in the sentence which it had pronounced, and under which the prisoner was held, had not exceeded its powers. It therefore directed the writ to issue, accompanied also by a writ of certiorari, to bring before this court the proceedings in the Circuit Court under which the petitioner was restrained of his liberty.

From the record of the case in the Circuit Court, and the return of the marshal in whose custody the prisoner was found, the following facts appeared, and were stated, by the learned justice who delivered the opinion of the court, as the case:

'The petitioner had been indicted under an act of Congress, passed 8th June, 1872,1 for stealing, purloining, embezzling, and appropriating to his own use certain mail-bags belonging to the Post-office Department. Upon the trial, on the 22d day of October, 1873, the jury found him guilty of appropriating to his own use mail-bags, the value of which was less than twenty-five dollars; the punishment for which offence, as provided in said statute, is imprisonment for not more than one year or a fine of not less than ten dollars nor more than two hundred dollars. On the 3d day of November, 1873, the judge presiding sentenced the petitioner under said conviction to one year's imprisonment, and to pay two hundred dollars fine. The petitioner was, on said day, committed to jail in execution of the sentence, and on the following day the fine was paid to the clerk of the court, who, in turn, and on the 7th day of November, 1873, paid the same into the Treasury of the United States.

'On the 8th day of the same month the prisoner was brought before the court on a writ of habeas corpus, the same judge presiding, and an order was entered vacating the folmer judgment, and the prisoner was again sentenced to one year's imprisonment from that date; and the return of the marshal to the writ of habeas corpus showed that it was under this latter judgment that he held the prisoner. It was conceded that all this was during the same term at which his trial took place before the jury. A second writ of habeas corpus, issued by the circuit judge, was returned into the Circuit Court, when the two district judges sat with him on the hearing, and the writ was discharged and the petitioner remanded to the custody of the marshal.'

Mr. H. H. Arnoux, in support of the discharge, made a full citation of cases, as well the British and Irish as our own, on the power of courts over their own judgments; certain of the cases denying all right to change the judgment after once enrolled; and made, further, an elaborate argument to prove that whatever its general power in the matter might be, the court in this case having imposed fine and imprisonment, and the fine having been paid, it could not, even during the term, modify the judgment as it had sought to do.

Mr. C. H. Hill, Assistant Attorney-General, contra, relied on the doctrine sufficiently long established, that during the term at which they are made, all courts have power over their judgments; arguing, moreover, that the judgment first rendered in this case being erroneous, was to be treated as void; in other words, as not entered, or no judgment; and that, therefore, the court could enter a valid judgment, and had done so in what it finally did. In support of his propositions, he relied much on the case of Bassett v. United States, decided by this court at December Term, 1869; in which it is said that 'it is competent for good cause to set aside at the same term at which it was rendered a judgment of conviction on confession, though the defendant had entered upon the imprisonment ordered by the sentence.'

The last judgment, he also said, though, perhaps, erroneous, was not void; and so no power to discharge existed.

Mr. Justice MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

On consideration of the petition which was filed in this case at a former day, the court was of opinion that the facts therein recited very fairly raised the question whether the Circuit Court, in the sentence which it had pronounced, and under which the prisoner was held, had not exceeded its powers. It therefore directed the writ to issue, accompanied also by a writ of certiorari, to bring before this court the proceedings in the Circuit Court under which the petitioner was restrained of his liberty. The authority of this court in such case, under the Constitution of the United States, and the fourteenth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, to issue this writ, and to examine the proceedings in the inferior court, so far as may be necessary to ascertain whether that court has exceeded its authority, is no longer open to question. The cases cited in the note below2 will, when examined, establish this proposition as far as judicial decision can establish it.

Disclaiming any assertion of a general power of review over the judgments of the inferior courts in criminal cases, by the use of the writ of habeas corpus or otherwise, we proceed to examine the case as disclosed by the record of the Circuit Court and the return of the marshal, in whose custody the prisoner is found, to ascertain whether it shows that the court below had any power to render the judgment by which the prisoner is held.

The first inquiry which presents itself is as to the nature and extent of the power of the Circuit Court over its own judgments in reversing, vacating, or modifying them.

We are furnished by counsel with a very full review of the cases in the English and American courts on the question of the power of courts over their judgments once rendered in criminal cases. Many of these decisions in the English courts are on writs of error and have but little bearing on the question before us. Others, which seems to present cases of judgments vacated or modified during the term at which they were rendered, are based upon the doctrines of the English courts, that there is no judgment or decree until the decree in chancery is enrolled or the judgment has been signed by the judge of the court of law, and become technically a part of the judgment roll.3

These decisions, some of which go to the extent of denying all right to amend or change the judgment after it becomes a part of the roll, are inapplicable to our system, where a judgment roll, strictly speaking, is no part, or, at least, not a necessary part of our system of judicial proceedings. In most, if not all, our courts a minute-book, or a record of the proceedings of the court, is kept, and is the appropriate repository of all the orders and judgments of the court; and this book with all its entries is, as a general rule, under the complete control of the court during the term to which such entries relate.

The general power of the court over its own judgments, orders, and decrees, in both civil and criminal cases, during the existence of the term at which they are first made, is undeniable. And this is the extent of the proposition intended to be decided in the case of Bassett v. United States.4 That was a case like this, in which, in a prosecution for misdemeanor, the prisoner had been sentenced to imprisonment. But it was by a judgment rendered on confession. He was afterwards, during the same term, brought into court and the judgment vacated, his plea of guilty withdrawn, and leave given to plead anew; and then he gave bail and his case was continued. It was in an action on the bail-bond which he had forfeited, that the sureties raised the question of the right of the court to vacate the former judgment.

In general terms, without much consideration, for no counsel appeared for the sureties, this court sustained the right. If it was intended in that case to raise the question of the right of the court to inflict a new and larger punishment on the prisoner, without reference to the time of his imprisonment on the one set aside, that point was not presented so as to receive the attention of the court, and certainly was not considered or decided.

It would seem that there must, in the nature of the power thus exercised by the court, be in criminal cases some limit to it.

The judgment of the courts in this class of cases extends to life, liberty, and property. The terms of many of them extend through considerable periods of time, often many months, with adjournments and vacations in the same term, at the discretion of the judge. A criminal may be sentenced to a disgraceful punishment, as whipping, or, as in the old English law, to have his ears cut off, or to be branded in the hand or forehead.

The judgment of the court to this effect being rendered and carried into execution before the expiration of the term, can the judge vacate that sentence and substitute fine or imprisonment, and cause the latter sentence also to be executed? Or if the judgment of the court is that the convict be imprisoned for four months, and he enters immediately upon the period of punishment, can the court, after it has been fully completed, because it is still in session of the same term, vacate that judgment and render another, for three or six months' imprisonment, or for a fine? Not only the gross injustice of such a proceeding, but the inexpediency of placing such a power in the hands of any tribunal is manifest.

If there is anything settled in the jurisprudence of England and America, it is that no man can be twice lawfully punished for the same offence. And though there have been nice questions in...

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1203 cases
  • Com. v. Quinlan
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Superior Court
    • April 8, 1994
    ...years imprisonment. There are two factors which we must consider before deciding to reach that disposition. Firstly, Ex Parte Lange [85 U.S. 163, 21 L.Ed. 872 (1873) ], the Supreme Court case upon which Allen, and therefore Brown and Thomas, rely, has since been limited to its facts by that......
  • United States v. Walker, Crim. A. No. 80-486.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Louisiana
    • May 7, 1981
    ...increasing the severity of an already imposed sentence absent the defendant's challenge to his conviction. See Ex parte Lange, 85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 163, 21 L.Ed. 872 (1874). Similarly, the prosecution in Blackledge could not have reprosecuted Perry for the felony assault charge in the absence......
  • State v. Nardini
    • United States
    • Connecticut Supreme Court
    • May 11, 1982
    ...be modified if any act is done in execution of it. State v. Pallotti, 119 Conn. 70, 74, 174 A. 74 (1934); see Ex Parte Lange, 85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 163, 176, 21 L.Ed. 872 (1873); Liistro v. Robinson, 170 Conn. 116, 123-24, 365 A.2d 109 (1976); State v. Vaughan, 71 Conn. 457, 460-61, 42 A. 640 ......
  • Gillihan v. Rodriguez
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Tenth Circuit
    • February 28, 1977
    ...51, 53 (8th Cir.); and see United States v. Smith, 331 U.S. 469, 474, 67 S.Ct. 1330, 91 L.Ed. 1610. We have considered Ex parte Lange, 85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 163, 21 L.Ed. 872, and United States v. Benz, 282 U.S. 304, 51 S.Ct. 113, 75 L.Ed. 354, relied on by appellant, and similar authorities. ......
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1 books & journal articles
  • Double jeopardy protection from civil sanctions after Hudson v. United States.
    • United States
    • Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology Vol. 89 No. 3, March 1999
    • March 22, 1999
    ...that the drafters would have specifically prohibited "multiple punishments" had this been their intent. Id. at 1609. (16) Ex Parte Lange, 85 U.S. 163, 168 (1873). See Kurth Ranch, 511 U.S. at 798-800 (Scalia, J., dissenting) (discussing Ex Parte Lange and multiple (17) Ex Parte Lange involv......

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