Ex parte Virginia

Citation25 L.Ed. 676,100 U.S. 339
Decision Date01 October 1879
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

PETITION for a writ of habeas corpus.

The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.

Mr. James G. Field, Attorney-General of Virginia, and Mr. William J. Robertson for the petitioner.

Mr. Attorney-General Devens and Mr. Assistant Attorney-General Smith, contra.

MR. JUSTICE STRONG delivered the opinion of the court.

The petitioner, J. D. Coles, was arrested, and he is now held in custody under an indictment found against him in the District Court of the United States for the Western District of Virginia. The indictment alleged that he, being a judge of the county court of Pittsylvania County of that State, and an officer charged by law with the selection of jurors to serve in the circuit and county courts of said county in the year 1878, did then and there exclude and fail to select as grand and petit jurors certain citizens of said county of Pittsylvania, of African race and black color, said citizens possessing all other qualifications prescribed by law, and being by him excluded from the jury lists made out by him as such judge, on account of their race, color, and previous condition of servitude, and for no other reason, against the peace and dignity of the United States, and against the form of the statute of the United States in such case made and provided.

Being thus in custody, he has presented to us his petition for a writ of habeas corpus and a writ of certiorari to bring up the record of the District Court, in order that he may be discharged; and he avers that the District Court had and has no jurisdiction of the matters charged against him in said indictment; that they constitute no offence punishable in said District Court; and that the finding of said indictment, and his consequent arrest and imprisonment, are unwarranted by the Constitution of the United States, or by any law made in pursuance thereof, and are in violation of his rights and of the rights of the State of Virginia, whose judicial officer he is.

A similar petition has been presented by the State of Virginia, praying for a habeas corpus and for the discharge of the said Coles. Accompanying both these petitions are exhibited copies of the indictment, the bench-warrant, and the return of the marshal, showing the arrest of the said Coles and his detention in custody.

Both these petitions have been considered as one case, and the first question they present is, whether this court has jurisdiction to award the writ asked for by the petitioners. The question is not free from difficulty, in view of the Constitution and the several acts of Congress relating to writs of habeas corpus, and in view of our decisions heretofore made. If granting the writ would be an exercise of original jurisdiction, it would seem that it could not be granted, unless the fact that one of the petitioners for the writ is the State of Virginia makes the cases to differ. This is established by the rulings in Marbury v. Madison (1 Cranch, 137), and in numerous subsequent decisions. And it is not readily perceived how the fact that a State applies for the writ to be directed to one of her own citizens can make a case for our original jurisdiction.

But the appellate power of this court is broader than its original, and generally—that is, in most cases—it may be said that the issue of a writ of habeas corpus by us, when it is directed to one of our inferior courts, is an exercise of our appellate jurisdiction. Without going at large into a discussion of its extent, it is sufficient for the present to notice the fact that the exercise of the appellate power is not limited by the Constitution to any particular form or mode. It is not alone by appeal or by writ of error that it may be invoked. In the Matter of Metzer (5 How. 176), it was indeed ruled that an order of commitment made by a district judge, at chambers, cannot be revised here by habeas corpus. But such an order was reviewable in no form; and, besides, the authority of that case has been much shaken. In re Kaine, 14 How. 103; Ex parte Yerger, 8 Wall. 85. In the latter of these cases, it was said by Chief Justice Chase, in delivering the opinion of the court: 'We regard as established, upon principle and authority, that the appellate jurisdiction by habeas corpus extends to all cases of commitment by the judicial authority of the United States, not within any exception made by Congress.'

In the present case, the petitioner Coles is in custody under a bench-warrant directed by the District Court, and the averment is that the court had no jurisdiction of the indictment on which the warrant is founded.

The District Court is an inferior court, and, in such a case as that exhibited by the indictment, its judgments are reviewable here. The indictment has been found for a violation of sect. 4 of the act of Congress of March 1, 1875, entitled 'An Act to protect all citizens in their civil and legal rights.' 18 Stat., part 3, 336. The third section gives to the district courts as well as the circuit judicial cognizance of all offences against the provisions of the act; and the fifth section enacts that all cases arising under the provisions of the act shall be reviewable by the Supreme Court of the United States, without regard to the sum in controversy, under the same provisions and regulations as are now provided by law for the review of other cases in said court. If this section applies to criminal cases as well as civil, our appellate power extends directly to the District Court, and the act of March 3, 1879 (20 Stat. 354), which allows writs of error to the Circuit Court in such cases, has not deprived us of appellate jurisdiction.

We have, then, an application to our appellate power over the action of a district court, in a case where it is alleged that court has acted outside of its jurisdiction. It is said there is nothing to appeal from, that no decision or judgment has been given in the inferior court, and that the appeal, if any, is taken from the finding of a grand jury. This is a mistake. The bench-warrant was an order of the court, and the validity of the bench-warrant is the matter in question. It is true there has been no final judgment or decision of the whole case; but an appeal may lie, and in many courts often does lie, from a merely interlocutory order. It is said no habeas corpus was sued out either in the district or circuit court, and that we are not called upon to review the action of a lower court upon such a writ. This is true, and such a writ from the lower court would have been a more regular proceeding. We cannot say, however, it was indispensable, especially in view of the fact that a State is seeking release of one of her officers, and in view of former action in this court. In Ex parte Hamilton (3 Dall. 17), this court awarded a writ of habeas corpus, to review a commitment under a warrant of a district judge. In Ex parte Burford (3 Cranch, 448), such a writ was awarded to review a commitment by the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, not to review a decision of an inferior court upon a habeas corpus issued by it. So, in Ex parte Jackson (96 U. S. 727), in which the question of our power to issue the writ was raised, and the petition only averred that the Circuit Court had exceeded its jurisdiction, this court considered the merits of the case, without regard to the fact that there had been no habeas corpus in the court below. And in Ex parte Lange (18 Wall. 163) it was ruled, after an examination of authorities, that when a prisoner shows that he is held under a judgment of a Federal court, given without authority of law, this court, by writs of habeas corpus and certiorari, will look into the record, so far as to ascertain whether that is the fact, and, if it is found to be so, will discharge him. Mr. Justice Miller said, in delivering the opinion: 'The authority of the court in such a 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 an open question.'

While, therefore, it is true that a writ of habeas corpus cannot generally be made to subserve the purposes of a writ of error, yet when a prisoner is held without any lawful authority, and by an order beyond the jurisdiction of an inferior Federal court to make, this court will, in favor of liberty, grant the writ, not to review the whole case, but to examine the authority of the court below to act at all.

Our conclusion, then, is that we are empowered to grant the writ in such a case as is presented in these petitions. We come now to the merits of the case.

The indictment and bench-warrant, in virtue of which the petitioner Coles has been arrested and is held in custody, have their justification,—if any they have,—in the act of Congress of March 1, 1875, sect. 4. 18 Stat., part 3, 336. That section enacts that 'no citizen, possessing all other qualifications which are or may be prescribed by law shall be disqualified for service as grand or petit juror in any court of the United States, or of any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude; and any officer or other person charged with any duty in the selection or summoning of jurors who shall exclude or fail to summon any citizen for the cause aforesaid shall, on conviction thereof, be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and be fined not more than $5,000.' The defendant has been indicted for the misdemeanor described in this act, and it is not denied that he is now properly held in custody to answer the indictment, if the act of Congress was warranted by the Constitution. The whole merits of the case are involved in the question, whether the act was thus warranted.

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