International Harvester Co. v. Commonwealth

Citation170 Ky. 41
PartiesInternational Harvester Company of America v. Commonwealth.
Decision Date05 May 1916
CourtCourt of Appeals of Kentucky

Appeal from Hickman Circuit Court.


JAMES GARNETT, Attorney General, and R. L. SMITH, Commonwealth Attorney, for appellee.


In December, 1911, the appellant, International Harvester Company of America, was tried in the Hickman circuit court under an indictment charging it with an offense resulting from an alleged violation by it of the anti-pooling act of 1890, section 198 of the constitution and the pooling act of 1906, as construed and enforced by this court in numerous cases. Appellant did not appear or plead to the indictment, but, following the return of a verdict from a jury finding it guilty and inflicting a fine of $1,000.00, a default judgment was rendered by the court against it in favor of the Commonwealth for the amount of such fine, for which and the costs of the prosecution, execution thereafter issued and was returned "no property found." Later this action in equity, in the nature of a bill for discovery, was instituted by the Commonwealth under section 439, Civil Code, to compel of appellant the payment of the judgment, writs of attachment being isued in aid of this object.

Although the constitutionality of the laws under which the indictment was rendered and fine imposed against appellant by the verdict and judgment had, in a number of cases appealed to this court, been upheld by it, they were subsequently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in three of these cases on writs of error therefrom to this court, viz.: Int'l Harvester Co. v. Commonwealth, 147 Ky. 564; Int'l Harvester Co. v. Commonwealth, 147 Ky. 795; and Int'l Harvester Co. v. Commonwealth, 148 Ky. 572, the one opinion applying to each of the three cases being reported in International Harvester Co. v. Kentucky, 234 U. S. 216.

In the instant case the answer of the appellant interposed the defense that as under the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in the cases, supra, the laws under which appellant was indicted, convicted and fined, as construed and applied by this court, are unconstitutional, the judgment against appellant, satisfaction of which is attempted to be here enforced, is void and, such being its status, it may be attacked collaterally. To the paragraph setting up this defense and other paragraphs of the answer, as amended, pleading a set-off against the judgment, the circuit court sustained a demurrer and appellant declining to plead further, judgment was rendered in accordance with the prayer of the petition. From the judgment manifesting these several rulings and finally disposing of the case, this appeal is prosecuted.

Is the judgment erroneous merely, or is it void? The authorities we have had an opportunity to examine all seem to agree that as a general rule all acts done under an unconstitutional law are void and of no effect, and that judgments rendered in the courts, or judicial proceedings under unconstitutional statutes, are void; also that a decision by a court of last resort, that a statute is unconstitutional, has the effect of rendering such statute absolutely null and void from the date of its enactment and not from the date on which it is judicially declared unconstitutional, 3 Cyc. 804, 805. It also seems to be well settled that the fact that a judgment is rendered by default cannot be taken to cure or waive radical defects going to the authority of the court to enter the judgment or to the foundation of plaintiff's cause of action. 23 Cyc. 751, 752. In this jurisdiction it has time and again been held, beginning with the earliest decisions, that a void judgment is subject to collateral attack from any person affected by it. Gullett v. Blanton, etc., 157 Ky. 457; Puckett, et al. v. Jameson, Sheriff, 157 Ky. 172; Robinson v. Charleston, etc., 123 Ky. 419; Bean v. Everett, 21 Rep. 1790; Carpenter v. Moorelock, 151 Ky. 506.

Is there any difference between a judgment which is void because the court was without jurisdiction of the subject matter and a judgment based upon a void statute? We think not. In either case the court would be without authority to render the judgment. An officer cannot be punished for refusing to obey an unconstitutional law, nor, in a proceeding to compel performance of official duty, can he rely upon the provisions of an unconstitutional law purporting to dispense with such performance, as a defense. Counsel for appellant admit that after diligent research they have been unable to discover any case in which a judgment imposing a fine under an unconstitutional law has been attacked collaterally, but declare that the books abound with cases in which a judgment sentencing a defendant to imprisonment under an unconstitutional statute has been relieved against by habeas corpus proceedings; that is, upon collateral inquiry. Among the cases so holding they cite Ex Parte Siebold, 100 U. S. 371; Ex Parte Smith, 135 Mo. 223; Ex Parte Knight, 52 Fla. 144.

In the case first cited Siebold seems to have been convicted and given sentence of imprisonment in Baltimore, under a judgment of a federal court, for violation of the federal election laws committed at an election for representatives to the federal congress. He sued out a writ of habeas corpus to the Supreme Court of the United States. In discussing the question of its jurisdiction to issue the writ, that court said:

"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."

Further on in the opinion it is said:

"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 offense created by it is...

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