John Newton Williamson v. United States

Decision Date06 January 1908
Docket NumberNo. 96,96
Citation52 L.Ed. 278,207 U.S. 425,28 S.Ct. 163
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Argument of Counsel from pages 425-427 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Charles A. Keigwin, Charles A. Douglas, W. B. Mattews, and E. B. Sherrill for plaintiff in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 427-430 intentionally omitted] Attorney General Bonaparte, Mr. William R. Harr, and Solicitor General Hoyt for defendant in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 430-432 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice White delivered the opinion of the court:

The writ of error to review a criminal conviction is prosecuted directly from this court upon the assumption that rights under the Constitution are involved. The errors assigned, however, relate not only to such question, but also to many other subjects. If there be a constitutional question adequate to the exercise of jurisdiction, the duty exists to review the whole case. Burton v. United States, 196 U. S. 283, 49 L. ed. 482, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 243.

The constitutional question relied on thus arose:

On February 11, 1905, Williamson, plaintiff in error, while a member of the House of Representatives of the United States, was indicted, with two other persons, for alleged violations of U. S. Rev. Stat. § 5440, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 3676, in conspiring to commit the crime of subornation of perjury in proceedings for the purchase of public land under the authority of the law commonly known as the timber and stone act. The defendants were ound guilty in the month of September, 1905. On October 14, 1905, when the court was about to pronounce sentence, Williamson—whose term of office as a member of the House of Representatives did not expire until March 4, 1907—protested against the court passing sentence upon him, and especially to any sentence of imprisonment, on the ground that thereby he would be deprived of his constitutional right to go to, attend at, and return from the ensuing session of Congress. The objection was overruled, and Williamson was sentenced to pay a fine and to imprisonment for ten months. Exceptions were taken both to the overruling of the preliminary objection and to the sentence of imprisonment. Upon these exceptions, assignments of error are based, which, it is asserted, present a question as to the scope and meaning of that portion of article 1, § 6, clause 1, of the Constitution, relating to the privilege of senators and representatives from arrest during their attendance on the session of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same.

At the threshold it is insisted by the government that the writ of error should be dismissed for want of jurisdiction. This rests upon the proposition that the constitutional question urged is of such a frivolous character as not to furnish a basis for jurisdiction, or, if not frivolous at the time when the sentence was imposed, it is now so. The first proposition assumes that it is so clear that the constitutional privilege does not extend to the trial and punishment, during his term of office, of a congressman for crime, that any assertion to the contrary affords no basis for jurisdiction. It is not asserted that it has ever been finally settled by this court that the constitutional privilege does not prohibit the arrest and punishment of a member of Congress for the commission of any criminal offense. The contention must rest, therefore, upon the assumption that the text of the Constitution so plainly excludes all criminal prosecutions from the privilege which that instrument accords a congressman as to cause the contrary assertion to be frivolous. But this conflicts with Burton v. United States, supra, where, although the scope of the privilege was not passed upon, it was declared that a claim interposed by a senator of the United States, of immunity from arrest in consequence of a prosecution and conviction for a misdemeanor, involved a constitutional question of such a character as to give jurisdiction to this court by direct writ of error. It is said, however, that this case differs from the Burton Case because there the trial and conviction was had during a session of the Senate, while here, at the time of the trial, conviction, and sentence, Congress was not in session, and therefore to assert the protection of the constitutional provision is to reduce the claim 'to the point of frivolousness.' This, however, but assumes that, even if the constitutional privilege embraces the arrest and sentence of a member of Congress for a crime like the one here involved, it is frivolous to assert that the privilege could possibly apply to an arrest and sentence at any other time than during a session of Congress, even although the inevitable result of such arrest and sentence might be an imprisonment which would preclude the possibility of the member attending an approaching session. We cannot give our assent to the proposition. Indeed, we think, if it be conceded that the privilege which the Constitution creates extends to an arrest for any criminal offense, such privilege would embrace exemption from any exertion of power by way of arrest and prosecution for the commission of crime, the effect of which exertion of power would be to prevent a congressman from attending a future as well as a pending session of Congress. The contention that, although there may have been merit in the claim of privilege when asserted, it is now frivolous because of a change in the situation, is based upon the fact that at this time the Congress of which the accused was a member has ceased to exist, and therefore, even if the sentence was illegal when imposed, such illegality has been cured by the cessation of the constitutional privilege. But, even if the proposition be conceded, it affords no ground for dismissing the writ of error, since our jurisdiction depends upon the existence of a constitutional question at the time when the writ of error was sued out, and such jurisdiction, as we have previously said, carries with it the duty of reviewing any errors material to the determination of the validity of the conviction. It hence follows that, even if the constitutional question as asserted is now 'a mere abstraction,' that fact would not avail to relieve as of the duty of reviewing the whole case and hence disposing of the assignments of error which are addressed to other than the constitutional question. Besides, we do not consider the proposition well founded, for, if at the time the sentence was imposed it was illegal because in conflict with the constitutional privilege of the accused, we fail to perceive how the mere expiration of the term of Congress for which the member was elected has operated to render that valid which was void because repugnant to the Constitution.

We come, then, to consider the clause of the Constitution relied upon, in order to determine whether the accused, because he was a member of Congress, was privileged from arrest and trial for the crime in question, or, upon conviction, was in any event privileged from sentence which would prevent his attendance at an existing or approaching session of Congress.

The full text of the 1st clause of § 6, article 1, of the Constitution, is this:

'Sec. 6. The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony, and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House they shall not be questioned in any other Place.'

If the words extending the privilege to all cases were unqualified, and therefore embraced the arrest of a member of Congress for the commission of any crime, we think, as we have previously said, they would not only include such an arrest as operated to prevent the member from going to and returning from a pending session, but would also extend to prohibiting a court during an interim of a session of Congress from imposing a sentence of imprisonment which would prevent him from attending a session of Congress in the future. But the question is not, What would be the scope of the words 'all cases' if those words embraced all crimes? but is, What is the scope of the qualifying clause? that is, the exception from the privilege of 'treason, felony, and breach of the peace.' The conflicting contentions are substantially these: It is insisted by the plaintiff in error that the privilege applied because the offense in question is confessedly not technically the crime of treason or felony, and is not embraced within the words 'breach of the peace,' as found in the exception, because 'the phrase 'breach of the peace' means only actual breaches of the peace, offenses involving violence or public disturbance.' This restricted meaning, it is said, is necessary in order to give effect to the whole of the excepting clause, since, if the words 'breach of the peace' be broadly interpreted so as to cause them to embrace all crimes, then the words 'treason' and 'felony' will become superfluous. On the other hand, the government insists that the words 'breach of the peace' should not be narrowly construed, but should be held to embrace substantially all crimes, and therefore as in effect confining the parliamentary privilege exclusively to arrests in civil cases. And this is based not merely upon the ordinary acceptation of the meaning of the words, but upon the contention that the words 'treason, felony, and breach of the peace,' as applied to parliamentary privilege, were commonly used in England prior to the Revolution, and were there well understood as excluding from the parliamentary privilege all arrests and prosecutions for criminal offenses; in other words, as confining the...

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