United States v. Johnson United States v. Sommers

Decision Date07 June 1943
Docket NumberNos. 4 and 5,s. 4 and 5
Citation319 U.S. 503,87 L.Ed. 1546,63 S.Ct. 1233
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 320 U.S. —-, 64 S.Ct. 25, 88 L.Ed. —-.

[Syllabus from pages 503-505 intentionally omitted] Mr. Arnold Raum, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Messrs. Floyd E. Thompson, of Chicago, Ill., and William J. Dempsey, of Washington, D.C., for respondent Johnson.

Messrs. Harold R. Schradzke and Edward J. Hess, both of Chicago, Ill., for respondents Sommers and others.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an indictment in five counts. Four charge Johnson with attempts to defraud the income tax for each of the years from 1936 to 1939, inclusive, and charge a dozen others with aiding and abetting Johnson's efforts. The fifth count charges Johnson and the others with conspir- acy to defraud the income tax during those years. The substantive counts charge violations of the penal provisions of the Revenue Acts of 1936 and 1938, now embodied in general form in § 145(b) of the Internal Revenue Code, 53 Stat. 63, 26 U.S.C. § 145(b), 26 U.S.C.A. Int.Rev.Code, § 145(b). The conspiracy count is based on the old § 5440 of the Revised Statutes, which later became § 37 of the Criminal Code, 35 Stat. 1096, 18 U.S.C. § 88 18 U.S.C.A. § 88.

As to four of the defendants, the cause was dismissed upon motion of the United States Attorney; three others were acquitted by the jury. Of the six remaining defendants, the jury brought in a verdict of guilty on all five counts against Johnson, Sommers, Hartigan, Flanagan, and Kelly, and against Brown on counts three and four, the substantive counts for the years 1938 and 1939, and on the conspiracy count. The district court imposed on Johnson a sentence of five years on each of the first four counts and of two years on the conspiracy count, as well as a fine of $10,000 of each of the five counts. The terms of imprisonment were to run concurrently and the payment of $10,000 would discharge all fines. Lesser concurrent sentences and fines were imposed on the other defendants.

The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgments. Its holding undermined the entire prosecution in that it found the indictment void because it was returned by an illegally constituted grand jury. But it went beyond that major ruling. It found the four substantive counts of the indictment, in so far as they charged defendants as aiders and abettors, fatally defective. Proceeding to the merits, the court held that the case properly went to the jury against Johnson on the last four counts and that the evidence sustained the verdict against all the defendants on the conspiracy count, but that a verdict should have been directed for Johnson on the first count and for the other defendants on all but the conspiracy count. Finally, it found that the testimony of an expert accountant for the government invaded the jury's province and that its admission was prejudicial error. 7 Cir., 123 F.2d 111. Judge Evans dissented on all points. He found no infirmities in the indictment or in the rulings by the trial judge, and thought that the case was properly committed to the jury. 123 F.2d page 128. On rehearing, the Circuit Court of Appeals adhered to its views, but withdrew an erroneous part of its grounds for deeming admission of the expert accountant's testimony to be prejudicial. 123 F.2d page 142. We brought the case here because it concerns serious aspects of federal criminal justice. 315 U.S. 790, 62 S.Ct. 625, 86 L.Ed. 1193.

Inasmuch as the initiation of prosecution through grand juries forms a vital feature of the federal system of criminal justice, the law governing its procedures and the appropriate considerations for determining the legality of its actions are matters of first importance. Therefore, in deciding that the defendants were held to answer for an infamous crime on what was merely a scrap of paper and not 'the indictment of the Grand Jury' as required by the Fifth Amendment, the lower court went beyond that which relates to the special circumstances of a particular case. Unlike most of the other rulings below, the court here dealt with a matter of deep concern to the administration of federal criminal law. At the root of the court's decision is its finding that an order extending the life of the grand jury was void, and that the indictment was therefore returned by a body not lawfully empowered to act. A brief history of the proceedings which led to the filing of this indictment in open court on March 29, 1940, is therefore essential.

Terms of court of the District Court for the Eastern Division of the Northern District of Illinois are, by statute, fixed for the first Monday in February, March, April, May, June, July, September, October, and November, and on the third Monday in December. 28 U.S.C. § 152, 28 U.S.C.A. § 152. This grand jury was impaneled at the December 1939 term of the district court, and was therefore empowered to sit through January 1940. By an order, the validity of which is undisputed, its life was continued into the February term. And on February 28, 1940, the district court authorized a further continuance of this grand jury during the March 1940 term. This is the order which gives rise to the controversy, for upon i § legality depends the validity of the indictment thereafter returned by the grand jury. The disputed order reads as follows:

'Now comes the Second December Term 1939 Grand Jury for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, by Dorothy W. Binder, Forewoman, and in open Court requests that an order be entered authorizing them, the said Second December, 1939 Grand Jury, heretofore authorized to sit during the February 1940 Term of this Court, to continue to sit during the Term of Court succeeding the said February Term of Court, to-wit, the March 1940 Term of Court, to finish investigations begun but not finished by said Grand Jury during the said December 1939 and the said February 1940 Terms of this Court, and which said investigations cannot be finished during the said February 1940 Term of Court; and the Court being fully advised in the premises,

'It Is Therefore Ordered That the Second December 1939 Grand Jury, now sitting in this Division and District, be, and it is hereby authorized to continue to sit during the March 1940 Term of Court for the purpose of finishing said investigations.'

The Court below construed this order as authorizing the grand jury to sit during March to enable it to finish investigations begun in February, while under the governing statute, § 284 of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 421, 28 U.S.C.A. § 421, it could be authorized only 'to finish investigations begun but not finished by such grand jury' during its original term, i.e., the December 1939 term. So to read the order, however, is to dissociate language from its appropriate furnction and to disregard the historic role of the grand jury in our federal judicial system. Since the law permits a continuance of the grand jury 'to finish investigations' begun during its original terms, the most elementary requirement of attributing legality to judicial action should, unless violence is done to English speech, lead to a reading of the order of February 28 so as to restrict the grand jury to that which it legally could do instead of to an expansive reading making for illegality.

The foundation for the holding that the order extending the grand jury into the March term purported to give authority in defiance of the statute is the phrase in the order reciting the grand jury's request that it be authorized to continue its sitting during the March term 'to finish investigations begun but not finished by said grand jury during the said December 1939 and the said February 1940 Terms of this Court, and which said investigations cannot be finished during the said February 1940 Term of Court.' The Circuit Court of Appeals read this to mean that the grand jury requested a continuance into the March term to finish investigations begun in the February as well as in the original December term. But surely the recital 'to finish investigations begun but not finished by said grand jury during the said December 1939 and the said February 1940 Terms', is, at the worst, dubious as to what was begun and what was finished. Judge Evans rightly resolved the ambiguity by reading the disputed language 'during the said December 1939 and the said February 1940 Terms' as qualifying 'finished' rather than 'begun', and therefore meaning that the grand jury was unable to finish during the December and February terms that which it had begun when it first came into being in the December term. Such a rendering makes good English as well as good sense. To read it as the court below read it is to go out of one's way in finding that the judge who granted the order of extension either wilfully or irresponsibly did a legally forbidden act, namely, to allow a grand jury to sit beyond the term and take up new instead of finishing old business. For the legal limitations governing extension of the life of a grand jury do not lie in a recondite field of law in which a federal district judge may easily slip. Certainly every district judge in a great metropolitan center like Chicago knows that in a thorizing a grand jury to continue to sit 'for the purpose of finishing' their 'investigations', the 'investigations' must have been begun during the grand jury's original term and that new domains of inquiry may not thereafter be entered by the grand jury.

The failure of the court below to recognize the essential function of the grand jury in our system of criminal justice is revealed by its subsidiary argument in regard to the fourth count. Since that charges an attempted evasion of Johnson's taxes for the year 1939, and since such an attempt could not have become manifest prior to the...

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