Ex parte Tobias Watkins

Decision Date01 January 1833
Citation32 U.S. 568,8 L.Ed. 786,7 Pet. 568
PartiesEx parte TOBIAS WATKINS
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

TOBIAS WATKINS, by Mr. Brent, his counsel, presented a petition to the court, setting forth that at the term of the circuit court of the district of Columbia, holden for the county of Washington, on the first Monday of May 1829, certain presentments and indictments were found against him, upon three of which indictments trials were had and verdicts passed against him, and judgments on such verdicts respectively were pronounced by the court, purporting to condemn him to certain terms of imprisonment, and also to the payment of certain pecuniary fines and costs, for the supposed offences therein. For the nature of those proceedings, the petitioner referred to the exemplifications filed in this court, with an application made to the court at January term 1830. (3 Pet. 193.)

The petition stated, that immediately after the rendition of such judgments, and in pretended execution of the same, on the 14th day of August 1829, he, the petitioner, was committed to the common jail of the county of Washington, and there remained, until the terms of imprisonment imposed by the several judgments had expired, the same having expired on the 14th day of May 1830; and that ever since that time, he had been, and still was detained in the criminal apartment of the prison, under the color and pretence of authority, not only of the judgments, but of three certain writs issued on the 16th day of February 1830, by the clerk of the circuit court of Washington county, by special orders of the district-attorney of the United States for the district of Columbia, as he had been informed and believed, at the request and by direction of the president of the United States. That he was illegally detained in prison by the authority of the said writs, as he was well advised; and averred, that they give no authority for his commitment and detention, having been not only illegally and oppressively issued, but he had been by them deprived of the privilege secured to him by the laws of the land, to be released from imprisonment, on the ground of his insolvency, and being unable to pay his debts. The writs gave no authority for his present detention and imprisonment, for a longer period than the first Monday in May 1830; since which time, even admitting the writs to have been legally issued, his imprisonment had been illegal and oppressive, and without any authority whatever. That the fines were excessive, and as such, contrary to the laws of the land, as he was, at the time they were imposed, and ever since had been, unable to pay the same, and it was not the law of the land that a citizen should be confined for life for fines which he could not pay. He had been refused the benefit of the insolvent laws, and if relief could not be obtained from this court, from his inability to pay the fines, he would be confined for life.

The petition prayed 'the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus, to be directed to the marshal of the district of Columbia, in whose custody, as keeper of said jail, your petitioner is, commanding him to bring before your honors the body of your petitioner, together with the cause of his commitment, and especially commanding him to return with said writ, the record of the proceedings upon said indictments, with the judgments thereupon, and the several writs under the supposed authority of which your petitioner is now detained, as aforesaid, in a criminal apartment of said jail, by the supposed authority, and in virtue of said several writs.' The court granted a rule to show cause, returnable on a subsequent day of the term.

The case was argued by Brent and Coxe, for the relator; and by Taney, Attorney-General, for the United States.

STORY, Justice, delivered the opinion of the court.

This is an application to the court to award a writ of habeas corpus to bring up the body of Tobias Watkins, a prisoner asserted to be illegally confined in the common jail of Washington county, in the district of Columbia, under process of execution issued from the circuit court of the United States for the same district. A rule was served upon the attorney-general, to show cause why the application should not be granted; and the cause has been fully argued upon the return of that rule. It is admitted, that all the facts existing in the case have been laid before the court, exactly as they would appear, if the habeas corpus had been duly awarded and returned; so that the judgment which the court are called upon to pronounce, is precisely that, which ought to be pronounced upon a full hearing upon the return to the writ of habeas corpus, and it has accordingly been so argued at the bar.

The material facts are as follows: Watkins was tried at the May term of the circuit court 1829, upon three several indictments found against him at that term, for certain offences against the United States; and being found guilty, was, upon each indictment, sentenced to imprisonment for three calendar months, and to pay certain fines, to wit, on one indictment $2000, on another, $750, and on a third, $300, with costs of prosecution. There is no award in either of the judgments, that the prisoner stand committed until the sentence be performed. Under these sentences, Watkins was immediately committed to jail by the then marshal of the district; and upon the expiration of his office, which was after the term of imprisonment was exhausted, and the appointment of a successor, he was delivered over, in jail, with other prisoners, to his successor; and he has ever since been detained in custody. The terms of imprisonment awarded by the judgments expired on the 14th of May 1830.

On the 3d day of September 1829, the district-attorney sued forth three several writs of fieri facias, to levy the aforesaid fines; upon which due return was made by the marshal of nulla bona. Upon the 16th of February 1830, the district-attorney sued forth three several writs of capias ad satisfaciendum against Watkins, to levy the same fines, which were all returnable to the then next May term of the circuit court. By these precepts, the marshal is commanded to take Watkins, and him safely keep, so that he have his body before the circuit court, on the first Monday of May then next, to satisfy unto the United States the fine, costs and charges. No return was made to the circuit court, by the marshal, according to the exigency of these writs; and nothing further appears upon the records and proceedings of the court, until the 10th day of January 1833, when the late marshal of the district made a return to each capias ad satisfaciendum as follows: 'Cepi—delivered over to my successor in office.'

Upon this state of the facts, several question have arisen and been argued at the bar; and one, which is preliminary in its nature, at the suggestion of the court. This is, whether, under the circumstances of the case, the court possessed jurisdiction to award the writ. And upon full consideration, we are of opinion, that the court do possess jurisdiction. The question turns upon this, whether it is an exercise of original or appellate jurisdiction. If it be the former, then, as the present is not one of the cases, in which the constitution allows this court to exercise original jurisdiction, the writ must be denied. Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137. If the latter, then it may be awarded, since the judiciary act of 1789, ch. 20, § 14, has clearly authorized the court to issue it. This was decided in United States v. Hamilton, 3 Dall. 17; Ex parte Bollman and Swartwout, 4 Cranch 75; and Ex parte Kearney, 7 Wheat. 38. The doubt was, whether, in the actual case before the court, the jurisdiction sought to be exercised was not original, since it brought in question, not the validity of the original process of capias ad satisfaciendum, but the present right of detainer of the prisoner under it. Upon further reflection, however, the doubt has been removed.

The award of the capias ad satisfaciendum must be considered as the act of the circuit court, it being judicial process, issuing under the authority of the court. The party is in custody under that process. He is then in custody, in contemplation of law, under the award of process by the court. Whether he is rightfully so, is the very question now to be decided. If the court should, upon the hearing, decide, that the capias ad satisfaciendum justifies the present detainer, and should remand the prisoner, it would clearly be an exercise of appellate jurisdiction; for it would be a revision and confirmation of the act of the court below. But the jurisdiction of the court can never depend upon its decision upon the merits of a case brought before it; but upon its right to hear and decide it at all. In Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137, it was said, that it is the essential criterion of appellate jurisdiction, that it revises and corrects the proceedings in a cause already instituted, and does not create that cause.

Tried by this criterion, the case before us comes in an appellate form, for it seeks to revise the acts of the circuit court. In Ex parte Bollman and Swartwout, 4 Cranch 75, the prisoners were in custody under an order of commitment of the circuit court; and it was held, that an award of a writ of habeas corpus by the supreme court was an exercise of appellate jurisdiction. On that occasion, the court said: 'So far as the case of Marbury v. Madison has distinguished between original and appellate jurisdiction, that which the court is asked to exercise, is clearly appellate. Is is the revision of a decision of an inferior court, which a citizen has been committed to jail.' Ex parte Hamilton, 3 Dall. 17, was a commitment under a warrant by a district judge; and the supreme court awarded a writ of habeas corpus to revise the decision, and admitted the party to bail. In Ex parte Burford, 3 Cranch 448, the prisoner was in custody under a commitment by the circuit...

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    ...only to the United States Government. Pervear v. Commonwealth, 72 U.S. (5 Wall.) 475, 480, 18 L.Ed. 608 (1866); Ex Parte Watkins, 32 U.S. (7 Pet.) 568, 574, 8 L.Ed. 786 (1833). However, in Pervear the Court made the following observation in the course of rejecting various challenges to a Ma......
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