Ex parte Siebold

Citation100 U.S. 371,25 L.Ed. 717
Decision Date01 October 1879
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 371-373 intentionally omitted] The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.

Mr. Bradley T. Johnson for the petitioners.

The Attorney-General, contra.

MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY delivered the opinion of the court.

The petitioners in this case, Albert Siebold, Walter Tucker, Martin C. Burns, Lewis Coleman, and Henry Bowers, were judges of election at different voting precincts in the city of Baltimore, at the election held in that city, and in the State of Maryland, on the fifth day of November, 1878, at which representatives to the Forty-sixth Congress were voted for.

At the November Term of the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Mayland, an indictment against each of the petitioners was found in said court, for offences alleged to have been committed by them respectively at their respective precincts whilst being such judges of election; upon which indictments they were severally tried, convicted, and sentenced by said court to fine and imprisonment. They now apply to this court for a writ of habeas corpus to be relieved from imprisonment.

Before making this application, each petitioner, in the month of September last, presented a separate petition to the Chief Justice of this court (within whose circuit Baltimore is situated), at Lynn, in the State of Connecticut, where he then was, praying for a like habeas corpus to be relieved from the same imprisonment. The Chief Justice thereupon made an order that the said marshal and warden should show cause, before him, on the second Tuesday of October, in the city of Washington, why such writs should not issue. That being the first day of the present term of this court, at the instance of the Chief Justice the present application was made to the court by a new petition addressed thereto, and the petitions and papers which had been presented to the Chief Justice were by consent made a part of the case. The records of the several indictments and proceedings thereon were annexed to the respective original petitions, and are before us. These indictments were framed partly under sect. 5515 and partly under sect. 5522 of the Revised Statutes of the United States; and the principal questions raised by the application are, whether those sections, and certain sections of the title of the Revised Statutes relating to the elective franchise, which they are intended to enforce, are within the constitutional power of Congress to enact. If they are not, then it is contended that the Circuit Court has no jurisdiction of the cases, and that the convictions and sentences of imprisonment of the several petitioners were illegal and void.

The jurisdiction of this court to hear the case is the first point to be examined. The question is whether a party imprisoned under a sentence of a United States court, upon conviction of a crime created by and indictable under an unconstitutional act of Congress, may be discharged from imprisonment by this court on habeas corpus, although it has no appellate jurisdiction by writ of error over the judgment. It is objected that the case is one of original and not appellate jurisdiction, and, therefore, not within the jurisdiction of this court. But we are clearly of opinion that it is appellate in its character. It requires us to revise the act of the Circuit Court in making the warrants of commitment upon the convictions referred to. This, according to all the decisions, is an exercise of appellate power. Ex parte Burford, 3 Cranch, 448; Ex parte Bollman and Swartout, 4 id. 100, 101; Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 98.

That this court is authorized to exercise appellate jurisdiction by habeas corpus directly is a position sustained by abundant authority. It has general power to issue the writ, subject to the constitutional limitations of its jurisdiction, which are, that it can only exercise original jurisdiction in cases affecting ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, and cases in which a State is a party; but has appellate jurisdiction in all other cases of Federal cognizance, 'with such exceptions and under such regulations as Congress shall make.' Having this general power to issue the writ, the court may issue it in the exercise of original jurisdiction where it has original jurisdiction; and may issue it in the exercise of appellate jurisdiction where it has such jurisdiction, which is in all cases not prohibited by law except those in which it has original jurisdiction only. Ex parte Bollman and Swartwout, supra; Ex parte Watkins, 3 Pet. 202; 7 id. 568; Ex parte Wells, 18 How. 307, 328; Ableman v. Booth, 21 id. 506; Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85.

There are other limitations of the jurisdiction, however, arising from the nature and objects of the writ itself, as defined by the common law, from which its name and incidents are derived. It cannot be used as a mere writ of error. Mere error in the judgment or proceedings, under and by virtue of which a party is imprisoned, constitutes no ground for the issue of the writ. Hence, upon a return to a habeas corpus, that the prisoner is detained under a conviction and sentence by a court having jurisdiction of the cause, the general rule is, that he will be instantly remanded. No inquiry will be instituted into the regularity of the proceedings, unless, perhaps, where the court has cognizance by writ of error or appeal to review the judgment. In such a case, if the error be apparent and the imprisonment unjust, the appellate court may, perhaps, in its discretion, give immediate relief on habeas corpus, and thus save the party the delay and expense of a writ of error. Bac. Abr., Hab. Corp., B. 13, Bethel's Case, Salk. 348; 5 Mod. 19. But the general rule is, that a conviction and sentence by a court of competent jurisdiction is lawful cause of imprisonment, and no relief can be given by habeas corpus.

The only ground on which this court, or any court, without some special statute authorizing it, will give relief on habeas corpus to a prisoner under conviction and sentence of another court is the want of jurisdiction in such court over the person or the cause, or some other matter rendering its proceedings void.

This distinction between an erroneous judgment and one that is illegal or void is well illustrated by the two cases of Ex parte Lange (18 Wall. 163) and Ex parte Parks, 93 U.S. 18. In the former case, we held that the judgment was void, and released the petitioner accordingly; in the latter, we held that the judgment, whether erroneous or not, was not void, because the court had jurisdiction of the cause; and we refused to interfere.

Chief Justice Abbot, in Rex v. Suddis (1 East, 306), said: 'It is a general rule that, where a person has been committed under the judgment of another court of competent criminal jurisdiction, this court [the King's Bench] cannot review the sentence upon a return to a habeas corpus. In such cases, this court is not a court of appeal.'

It is stated, however, in Bacon's Abridgment, probably in the words of Chief Baron Gilbert, that, 'if the commitment be against law, as being made by one who had no jurisdiction of the cause, or for a matter for which by law no man ought to be punished, the court are to discharge.' Bac. Abr., Hab. Corp., B. 10. The latter part of this rule, when applied to imprisonment under conviction and sentence, is confined to cases of clear and manifest want of criminality in the matter charged, such as in effect to render the proceedings void. The authority usually cited under this head is Bushel's Case, decided in 1670. There, twelve jurymen had been convicted in the oyer and terminer for rendering a verdict (against the charge of the court) acquitting William Penn and others, who were charged with meeting in conventicle. Being imprisoned for refusing to pay their fines, they applied to the Court of Common Pleas for a habeas corpus; and though the court, having no jurisdiction in criminal matters, hesitated to grant the writ, yet, having granted it, they discharged the prisoners, on the ground that their conviction was void, inasmuch as jurymen cannot be indicted for rendering any verdict they choose. The opinion of Chief Justice Vaughan in the case has rarely been excelled for judicial eloquence. T. Jones, 13; s. c. Vaughan, 135; s. c. 6 Howell's State Trials, 999.

Without attempting to decide how far this case may be regarded as law for the guidance of this court, we are clearly of opinion that the question raised in the cases before us is proper for consideration on habeas corpus. The validity of the judgments is assailed on the ground that the acts of Congress under which the indictments were found are unconstitutional. If this position is well taken, it affects the foundation of the whole proceedings. An unconstitutional law is void, and is as no law. An offence created by it is not a crime. A conviction under it is not merely erroneous, but is illegal and void and cannot be a legal cause of imprisonment. It is true, if no writ of error lies, the judgment may be final, in the sense that there may be no means of reversing it. But personal liberty is of so great moment in the eye of the law that the judgment of an inferior court affecting it is not deemed so conclusive but that, as we have seen, the question of the court's authority to try and imprison the party may be reviewed on habeas corpus by a superior court or judge having authority to award the writ. We are satisfied that the present is one of the cases in which this court is authorized to take such jurisdiction. We think so, because, if the laws are unconstitutional and void, the Circuit Court acquired no jurisdiction of the causes. Its authority to indict and try the petitioners arose solely upon these laws.

We proceed, therefore, to examine the cases on their merits.

The indictments commence with an introductory statement that, on the 5th of ...

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