Passmore Williamson's Case

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Citation26 Pa. 9
PartiesPassmore Williamson's Case.
Decision Date01 January 1856

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26 Pa. 9
Passmore Williamson's Case.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

THIS was an ex parte application, by Passmore Williamson, to the Supreme Court sitting in banc at Bedford, on the 11th day of August, 1855, for a writ of habeas corpus.

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Gilpin and Meredith, for the petitioner.

The opinion of the court was delivered by BLACK, J.

This is an application by Passmore Williamson for a writ of habeas corpus. He complains that he is held in custody under a commitment of the District Court of the United States for a contempt of that court in refusing to obey its process. The process which he is confined for disobeying was a habeas corpus commanding him to produce the bodies of certain coloured persons claimed as slaves under the law of Virginia.

Is he entitled to the writ he has asked for? In considering what answer we shall give to this question, we are, of course, expected to be influenced, as in other cases, by the law and the Constitution alone. The gentlemen who appeared as counsel for the petitioner, and who argued the motion in a manner which did them great honour, pressed upon us no considerations, except those which were founded upon their legal views of the subject.

It is argued with much earnestness, and no doubt with perfect sincerity, that we are bound to allow the writ, without stopping to

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consider whether the petitioner has or has not laid before us any probable cause for supposing that he is illegally detained — that every man confined in prison, except for treason or felony, is entitled to it, ex debito justitiæ — and that we cannot refuse it without a frightful violation of the petitioner's rights, no matter how plainly it may appear on his own showing that he is held in custody for a just cause. If this be true, the case of Ex parte Lawrence (5 Binn. 304) is not law. There the writ was refused, because the applicant had been previously heard before another court. But if every man who applies for a habeas corpus must have it, as a matter of right, and without regard to anything but the mere fact that he demands it, then a court or a judge has no more power to refuse a second than a first application.

Is it really true that the special application which must be made for every writ of habeas corpus, and the examination of the commitment, which we are bound to make before it can issue, are mere hollow and unsubstantial forms? Can it be possible that the law and the courts are so completely under the control of their natural enemies that every class of offenders against the Union or the state, except traitors and felons, may be brought before us as often as they please, though we know beforehand, by their own admissions, that we cannot help but remand them immediately? If these questions must be answered in the affirmative, then we are compelled, against our will and contrary to our convictions of duty, to wage a constant warfare against the federal tribunals by firing off writs of habeas corpus upon them all the time. The punitive justice of the state would suffer still more seriously. The half of the Western Penitentiary would be before us at Philadelphia, and a similar proportion from Cherry Hill and Moyamensing would attend our sittings at Pittsburgh. To remand them would do very little good; for a new set of writs would bring them all back again. A sentence to solitary confinement would be a sentence, that the convict should travel for a limited term up and down the state, in company with the officers who might have him in charge. By the same means the inmates of the lunatic asylums might be temporarily enlarged, much to their own detriment; and every soldier or seaman in the service of the country could compel their commanders to bring them before the court six times a week.

But the habeas corpus act has never received such a construction. It is a writ of right, and may not be refused to one who shows a prima facie case entitling him to be discharged or bailed. But he has no right to demand it who admits that he is in legal custody for an offence not bailable; and he does make what is equivalent to such an admission when his own application, and the commitment referred to in it, show that he is lawfully detained. A complaint must be made, and the cause of detainer submitted to a judge, before the writ can go. The very object and purpose of this is to

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prevent it from being trifled with by those who have manifestly no right to be set at liberty. It is like a writ of error in a criminal case, which the court or judge is bound to allow, if there be reason to suppose that an error has been committed, and equally bound to refuse, if it be clear that the judgment must be affirmed.

We are not aware that any application to this court for a writ of habeas corpus has ever been successful, where the judges, at the time of the allowance, were satisfied that the prisoner must be remanded. The petitioner's counsel say there is but one reported case in which it was refused, and this fact is given in the argument, as a reason for supposing that in all other cases the writ was issued without examination. But no such inference can fairly be drawn from the scarcity of judicial decisions on a point like this. We do not expect to find in reports so recent as ours those long-established rules of law, which the student learns from his elementary books, and which are constantly acted upon without being disputed.

The habeas corpus is a common law writ, and has been used in England from time immemorial, just as it is now. The statute of 31 Car. 2, c. 2, made no alteration in the practice of the courts in granting these writs: (3 Barn. & Ald. 420-2; Chitty's Reps. 207.) It merely provided, that the judges in vacation should have the power which the courts had previously exercised in term time (1 Chitty's Gen. Prac. 586), and inflicted penalties upon those who should defeat its operation. The common law upon this subject was brought to America by the colonists; and most, if not all the states, have since enacted laws resembling the English statute of Charles II. in every principal feature. The Constitution of the United States declares that "the privilege of a writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended unless when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it." Congress has conferred upon the federal judges the power to issue such writs according to the principles and rules regulating it in other courts. Seeing that the same general principles of common law on this subject prevail in England and America, and seeing also the similarity of their statutory regulations in both countries, the decisions of the English judges as well as of the American courts both state and federal, are entitled to our fullest respect as settling and defining our powers and duties.

Blackstone (3 Com. 132) says that the writ of habeas corpus should be allowed only when the court or judge is satisfied that the party hath probable cause to be delivered. He gives cogent reasons why it should not be allowed in any other case, and cites with unqualified approbation the precedent set by Sir EDWARD COKE and Chief Justice VAUGHAN in cases where they had refused it. Chitty lays down the same rule (1 Cr. Law 101; 1 Gen. Prac. 686-7). It seems to have been acted upon by all the judges. The writ was refused in Rex v. Scheiner (1 Burr. 765), and in the

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case of The Three Spanish Sailors (2 Black's R. 1324.) In Hobhouse's Case (3 Barn. & Ald. 420,) it was fully settled by an unanimous court as the true construction of the statute, that the writ is never to be allowed, if upon view of the commitment, it be manifest that the prisoner must be remanded. In New York, when the statute in force there was precisely like ours (so far, I mean, as this question is concerned), it was decided by the Supreme Court (5 Johns. 282), that the allowance of the writ was a matter within the discretion of the court, depending on the grounds laid in the application. It was refused in Husted's Case (1, 2 Com. 136), and in Ex parte Ferguson (9 Johns. R. 139). In addition to this we have the opinion of Chief Justice MARSHALL in Watkin's Case (3 Peters 202), that the writ ought not to be awarded if the court is satisfied that the prisoner must be remanded. It was accordingly refused by the Supreme Court of the United States in that case, as it had been before in Kearney's Case.

On the whole we are thoroughly satisfied that our duty requires us to view and examine the cause of detainer now, and to make an end of the business at once, if it appears that we have no power to discharge him on the return of the writ.

The prisoner, as already said, is confined on a sentence of the District Court of the United States, for a contempt. A habeas corpus is not a writ of error. It cannot bring a case before us in such a manner that we can exercise any kind of appellate jurisdiction in it. On a habeas corpus, the judgment even of a subordinate state court cannot be disregarded, reversed, or set aside, however clearly we may perceive it to be erroneous, and however plain it may be that we ought to reverse it if it were before us on appeal or writ of error. We can only look at the record to see whether a judgment exists, and have no power to say whether it is right or wrong. It is conclusively presumed to be right until it is regularly brought up for revision. We decided this three years ago at Sunbury, in a case which we all thought one of much hardship. But the rule is so familiar, so universally acknowledged, and so reasonable in itself, that it requires only to be stated. It applies with still greater force, or at least for much stronger reasons, to the decisions of the federal courts. Over them we have no control at all, under any circumstances, or by any process that could be...

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