Morhous v. Supreme Court of New York

Decision Date14 June 1944
Citation56 N.E.2d 79,293 N.Y. 131
PartiesMORHOUS, Warden, Great Meadow Prison, v. SUPREME COURT OF NEW YORK, et al.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Appeal from Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Third Department.

Proceedings in the matter of Vernon A. Morhous, as Warden of Great Meadow Prison, against the Supreme Court of the State of New York, particularly any Trial or Special Term in and for Washington County, and others, for an order under Civil Practice Act, s 1283 et seq., in nature of prohibition restraining named respondent, sititng in or for Washington County, from proceeding to trial or adjudication of issues in a habeas corpus proceeding pending in respondent court wherein R. Gordon Whitman is relator. From an order of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the Third Judicial Department, denying as a matter of law and not in exercise of discretion petitioner's application, 267 App.Div. 527, 46 N.Y.S.2d 889, petitioner appeals by permission of the Court of Appeals.

Order reversed, and application granted. Nathaniel L. Goldstein, Atty. Gen., (Orrin G. Judd and Henry S. Manley, both of Albany, of counsel), for appellant.

Charles E. Hughes, Jr., Curtiss E. Frank, and Barbara Coxe, all of New York City, for respondent R. Gordon Whitman.

LEHMAN, Chief Judge.

The respondent R. Gordon Whitman is imprisoned in Great Meadow prison under a sentence imposed by the Court of General Sessions in New York County in 1931 after he had been convicted in that court of the crime of manslaughter in the first degree. In 1941 he applied for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging in his petition that his conviction was obtained by perjured testimony knowingly used by the prosecution; that testimony in his favor was suppressed by the prosecution; and that newspaper articles containing the malicious falsehood that he had previously murdered an officer of the law in West Virginia were maliciously used at the trial. The judgment of conviction, alleged to have been obtained by such means, deprives the defendant, it is said, of his liberty without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

At the hearing upon the writ, the court at Special Term dismissed the writ without giving the relator opportunity to prove the truth of his allegations. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the order dismissing the writ. People ex rel. Whitman v. Wilson, 263 App.Div. 908, 32 N.Y.S.2d 29. The relator applied for permission to appeal to this court in accordance with the provisions of section 589 of the Civil Practice Act. Permission was denied. If the construction of the Constitution of the State or of the United States was directly involved, an appeal would lie as of right. Civil Practice Act, s 588. The denial by this court of permission to appeal was not ‘upon the ground that the appeal would lie as of right’ as provided in section 592 of the Civil Practice Act. Thereafter the Supreme Court of the United States granted an application for certiorari (New York ex rel. Whitman v. Wilson, 317 U.S. 615, 63 S.Ct. 70, 87 L.Ed. 499). When it appeared that the petitioner had filed a notice of appeal to this court as of right and that no order had been entered dismissing that appeal, counsel were advised by the Clerk of the Supreme Court of the United States that they ‘are requested to submit a memorandum with respect to the jurisdiction of this Court in the light of New York practice, and to state their views on the questions (1) whether an appeal as of right was taken by the filing of the notice of appeal, (2) if so, whether this appeal as of right was abandoned, was disposed of by the order of the Court of Appeals, or is still pending. Compare Morris Plan Industrial Bank v. Gaves, 314 U.S. 572 (62 S.Ct. 101, 86 L.Ed. 464).’ To remove doubt whether there had been a final determination by this court that the relator could not by writ of habeas corpus challenge the validity of the sentence of imprisonment, this court on April 7, 1943, upon its own motion entered an order which provides in part as follows: ‘it appearing * * * that the case is one where appellant is not entitled to a writ of habeas corpus under section 1231 of the Civil Practice Act; and that an appeal from the order entered upon the decision of the Appellate Division taken by the appellant as of right must be dismissed; * * * Ordered, that said appeal be and the same hereby is dismissed.’ See 290 N.Y. 670, 49 N.E.2d 626.

The requirement of due process of law guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and by the Constitution of this State ‘cannot be deemed to be satisfied by mere notice and hearing if a state has contrived a conviction through the pretense of a trial which in truth is but used as a means of depriving a defendant of liberty through a deliberate deception of court and jury by the presentation of testimony known to be perjured.’ A state may not deny ‘to its court jurisdiction to redress the prohibited wrong upon a proper showing and in an appropriate proceeding for that purpose.’ Mooney v. Holohan, 294 U.S. 103, 112, 113, 55 S.Ct. 340, 342, 79 L.Ed. 791, 98 A.L.R. 406. It is not now disputed that the allegations of the petition of the respondent Whitman upon his application for a writ of habeas corpus ‘sufficiently charge a deprivation of rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution, and, if proven, would entitle petitioner to release from his present custody.’ Pyle v. Kansas, 317 U.S. 213, 216, 63 S.Ct. 177, 178, 87 L.Ed. 214. An appeal from the order dismissing the writ of habeas corpus presents primarily the question whether the writ of habeas corpus is available for the purpose of invoking the power of the court to inquire whether the petitioner is deprived of his liberty without due process of law under a judgment of conviction ‘contrived * * * through the pretense of a trial’. The mandate of the Constitution of the United States that no State shall deprive a person of his liberty without due process of law is unheeded by a State only where it has denied to its courts jurisdiction to inquire whether ‘through its legislature, through its courts or through its executive * * * officers' a person has been wrongfully deprived of his liberty, or where a court having ‘jurisdiction to redress the prohibited wrong’ fails to accord to the injured person the remedy to which he is entitled. An injured person must avail himself of other appropriate ‘corrective judicial process to remedy the alleged wrong’ if under the law of the State the writ of habeas corpus is not available for that purpose. Mooney v. Holohan, supra; Frank v. Mangum, 237 U.S. 309, 35 S.Ct. 582, 59 L.Ed. 969.

The writ of habeas corpus is the traditional process devised centuries ago to safeguard the rights of persons, deprived of liberty, to challenge in the courts the legality of their detention. Hoff v. State of New York, 279 N.Y. 490, 18 N.E.2d 671. The Legislature has provided that a person is not entitled to a writ of habeas corpus ‘where he * * * is detained by virtue of the final judgment or decree of a competent tribunal of civil or criminal jurisdiction.’ Civil Practice Act, s 1231. The express statutory limitation was not intended to abridge the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus. Indeed, the Legislature had, under the Constitution of the State, no power to do that. The statute merely formulates the limitation which had generally been applied by the court of Kings Bench in England and by the courts of America. ‘Upon a return to a habeas corpus that the prisoner is detained under a conviction and sentence by a court having jurisdiction of the cause, the general rule is, that he will be instantly remanded.’ Ex parte Siebold, 100 U.S. 371, 375, 25 L.Ed. 717.

The Court of General Sessions had, it is undisputed, jurisdiction of the person of the petitioner and jurisdiction of the offense with which he was charged. It was therefore a competent court to try the charge and to sentence the defendant if convicted. Imprisonment under a judgment rendered by a court which had jurisdiction to try the charge is not unlawful if measured solely by common-law rules and standards. ‘An imprisonment under a judgment cannot be unlawful, unless that judgment be an absolute nullity; and it is not nullity, if the court has general jurisdiction of the subject, although it should be erroneous.’ Ex parte Tobias Watkins, 3 Pet. 193, 203, 7 L.Ed. 650. Doubtless that comm-law principle does not apply in full force where a court of competent jurisdiction has failed in the course of a trial to observe the requirements of due process. In such case imprisonment, though under a judgment of a court which has general jurisdiction of the subject, is unlawful, and the person imprisoned is deprived of his liberty by the State without due process if he cannot find a remedy in an appropriate proceeding in a court of competent jurisdiction.

Though ‘in no case has a writ of habeas corpus been sustained by this court where imprisonment is under a final judgment of imprisonment by a court having jurisdiction of the person of the accused and general jurisdiction of criminal offenses' People ex rel. Carr v. Martin, 286 N.Y. 27, 36, 35 N.E.2d 636, 641, yet until our recent decision in Matter of Lyons v. Goldstein, 290 N.Y. 19, 47 N.E.2d 425, 146 A.L.R. 1422, this court had not been called upon to determine whether a person imprisoned under a judgment of a competent court obtained after a trial which does not satisfy the requirements of due process, can obtain his release upon a proper showing in some other appropriate proceeding. At common law a court of competent jurisdiction had power by writ of error coram nobis to set aside its own judgment where it appeared that the judgment complained of could not have been entered if the facts upon which the error is predicated had been presented in the trial court. Robinson v. Johnston, 9 Cir., 118 F.2d 998....

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