Klapprott v. United States

Decision Date17 January 1949
Docket NumberNo. 42,42
Citation336 U.S. 942,69 S.Ct. 384,93 L.Ed. 1099,93 L.Ed. 266,335 U.S. 601
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 69 S.Ct. 398.

Mr. P. Bateman Ennis, of Washington, D. C., for petitioner.

Mr. Robert L. Stern, of Washington, D. C., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BLACK announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the following opinion in which Mr. Justice DOUGLAS joins.

This case raises questions concerning the power of federal district courts to enter default judgments depriving naturalized persons of their citizenship without hearings or evidence, and to set aside default judgments under some circumstances four years or more after the default judgments were entered.

The petitioner was born in Germany. In 1933 after a hearing a New Jersey state court entered a judgment admitting him to United States citizenship. Petitioner then took an oath renouncing allegiance to Germany and promising to bear true faith and allegiance to the United States, whereupon the court granted him a certificate of naturalization. See 8 U.S.C. § 735, 8 U.S.C.A. § 735.

Nine years later, the United States Attorney, acting pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 738, 8 U.S.C.A. § 738, filed a complaint in the United States District Court of New Jersey to set aside the state court's judgment and cancel petitioner's certificate of naturalization. The complaint alleged generally that petitioner's oath of allegiance, etc., was false, that at the time of taking it petitioner well knew that he was not attached to the principles of the United States Constitution, and that he had not in fact intended thereafter to bear true allegiance to the United States or renounce and discontinue his allegiance and fidelity to Ger- many. In particular the complaint charged no more than that petitioner subsequent to 1935 had evidenced his loyalty to Germany and his disloyalty to this country by writings and speeches; that he was in 1942 and had been before that time a leader and member of the German American Bund and other organizations, the principles of which were alleged to be inimical to the Constitution of the United States and the happiness of its people; that these organizations were propagated and encouraged by enemies of the United States who believed in the ideology enunciated by Adolph Hitler. For the requirement that allegations of fraud be particularized, see Rule 9(b) of the Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C.A.

Petitioner, though served with notice May 15, 1942, failed to answer the complaint within sixty days as required by 8 U.S.C. § 738(b), 8 U.S.C.A. § 738(b). But on July 7, 1942, before expiration of the sixty days, petitioner was arrested and confined in a New York jail on criminal charges brought by the United States. On July 17, 1942, the F deral District Court of New Jersey on motion of the United States Attorney, entered a judgment by default against petitioner in the denaturalization proceedings, set aside the 1933 state court judgment admitting him to citizenship, and cancelled his certificate of naturalization.

More than four years after the default judgment was rendered against him, and while petitioner was still a government prisoner, he filed in the District Court a verified petition praying that the court set aside the judgment. The United States did not deny any of the facts alleged in the verified petition. The District Court, necessarily accepting the undenied allegations as true, held that the petitioner had been guilty of 'wilful and inexcusable neglect' and accordingly dismissed the petition 'because of the defendant's laches.' 6 F.R.D. 450, 451. The Circuit Court of Appeals, rejecting petitioner's several contentions, affirmed, one judge dissenting. 3 Cir., 166 F.2d 273.

In considering the case we also must accept as true the undenied allegations of the petitioner. These facts are of great importance in considering some of the legal contentions raised. The alleged facts chronologically arranged are as follows:


Nov. 16. Petitioner was naturalized by order of court.


Nov. 17. Petitioner married an American citizen and now has one child by that marriage.


Spring. Petitioner was seriously ill. The illness left him financially poor and so weakened that he was unable to work.

May 12 United States Attorney filed the complaint in the United States District Court of New Jersey to cancel petitioner's citizenship.

May 15. Complaint served on petitioner. He had no money to hire a lawyer. He drew a draft of an answer to the complaint and wrote a letter to the American Civil Liberties Union asking that they represent him without fee.

July 7. Arrested under federal indictment charging petitioner and others with conspiracy to violate the Selective Service Act, 50 U.S.C.A. Appendix, § 301 et seq. Taken before United States Commissioner at Newark, New Jersey; later carried to New York by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, there put in prison, unable to make bond of $25,000 under which he was held. His letter to Civil Liberties Union taken from him by agents of the FBI eight days before expiration of time to answer cancellation of citizenship charge in New Jersey. The agents retained the letter, never mailing it.


July 17. Judgment by default entered by New Jersey court in citizenship cancellation case. At the time, petitioner was in a New York jail awaiting trial under the selective service conspiracy case. No evidence was offered by the Government to prove its charges in the complaint for cancellation of citizenship. The government's case consisted or no more than a verification of this complaint by an FBI agent on information and belief, based on the agent's having read FBI files concerning petitioner.

July 7, 1942, date of arrest, to June 1943. While petitioner was still in jail, a lawyer was appointed by the New York District Court to defend petitioner in the selective service criminal case. At his request the New York lawyer promised to help him also in the New Jersey cancellation proceedings, but the lawyer neglected to do so. Petitioner was convicted and sentenced to penitentiary.


June. Petitioner elected to begin service of the New York sentence pending appeal, was carried to and confined in federal institution in Michigan where he remained until January 30, 1944. [606]


Jan. 30. Petitioner transferred from federal prison in Michigan to jail in the District of Columbia to be tried with twenty-nine other persons on a charge of sedition.


June 11. This Court reversed petitioner's New York conviction, Keegan v. United States, 325 U.S. 478, 65 S.Ct. 1203, 89 L.Ed. 1745, but he continued to be held in the District of Columbia jail unt l November 22, 1946.


Nov. 22 District of Columbia sedition case dismissed. United States v. McWilliams et al., D.C.Cir., 163 F.2d 695. The case had previously been tried for eight months, but before completion a mistrial was declared because of the death of the presiding judge. Shortly after dismissal of the sedition case petitioner, still a prisoner of the United States, was carried to Ellis Island for deportation on account of the cancellation of his citizenship under the New Jersey default judgment.

Dec. 9 This Court denied certiorari in three court actions unsuccessfully prosecuted by the Citizen's Protective League on behalf of 159 individuals including petitioner. (The League was a non-profit organization 'to insure equal rights for all and to safeguard the constitutional rights of all persons.' Citizens Protective League v. Clark, 81 U.S.App.D.C. 116, 155 F.2d 290, 291, certiorari denied, 329 U.S. 787, 67 S.Ct. 354, 91 L.Ed. 674. The complaint prayed that the At- torney General be enjoined from deporting the 159 individuals. Petitioner had been ordered deported March 27, 1946, while he was in the District of Columbia jail charged with sedition.)


Dec. 12. Three days after this Court's denial of certiorari, in the action brought by the Citizens Protective League, petitioner, still a government prisoner at Ellis Island, stated the substance of the foregoing facts under oath and a petition was filed on his behalf in the New Jersey District Court to vacate the default judgment and grant him a trial on the merits. Petitioner's verified motion also alleged that the government's charges against him in the New Jersey court were untrue and he strongly asserted his loyalty to the United States.


Feb. 7. District judge dismissed the petitioner's motion holding that petitioner had been guilty of laches in not arranging while in prison for defense of the cancellation of citizenship charge.

Thus, this petitioner has now been held continuously in prison by the Government for six and one-half years. During that period he served one and one-half years of a penitentiary punishment under a conviction which this Court held was improper. He was also held in the District of Columbia jail two years and ten months under an indictment that was later dismissed. It is clear therefore, that for four and one-half years this petitioner was held in prison on charges that the Government was unable to sustain. No other conclusion can be drawn except that this long imprisonment was wrongful. Whether the judgment by default should be set aside must therefore be decided on the undenied allegations that the Government, largely through the action of FBI agents, wrongfully held petitioner in New York, Michigan, and District of Columbia prisons, while the same Government, largely acting through the same or other FBI agents, caused a district court to revoke petitioner's citizenship on the ground that petitioner had failed to make appearance and defend in the New Jersey courts, although petitioner was at the time without funds to hire a lawyer.

First. Amended Rule 60(b) of the Federal Rule of Civil Procedure became...

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