Wingo v. Wedding 8212 846

Decision Date26 June 1974
Docket NumberNo. 73,73
Citation418 U.S. 461,41 L.Ed.2d 879,94 S.Ct. 2842
PartiesJohn W. WINGO, Warden, Petitioner, v. Carl James WEDDING. —846
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Following enactment of the Federal Magistrates Act, the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky amended its Local Rule 16 to provide that in addition to submitting such other reports and recommendations as may be reequired concerning petitions for writs of habeas corpus from state prisoners the full-time magistrate shall 'schedule and hear evidentiary matters . . . (to be electronically recorded) deemed by the Magistrate to be necessary and proper in the determination of . . . such petition, and to report thereon with an appropriate recommendation for the disposition thereof to the District Judge (who) . . . (u)pon . . . request . . . shall proceed to hear the recording of the testimony . . . and give it de novo consideration.' Respondent, a state prisoner, whose petition for habeas corpus was assigned to a full-time Magistrate for processing, claimed that the Rule is invalid and filed a motion with the District Court that the Magistrate be disqualified from holding the habeas corpus hearing and that the hearing be assigned to a district judge. The District Court denied the motion; the Magistrate proceeded with the hearing; and thereafter he transmitted the electronic recording to the District Court along with his written findings and conclusions recommending dismissal. The District Court, following respondent's motion for a de novo hearing, listened to the recording, on the basis of which, together with the Magistrate's findings and conclusions, it dismissed the petition. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that, notwithstanding a formal revision of the habeas corpus statute, 28 U.S.C. § 2243, the construction of the predecessor statute given in Holiday v. Johnson, 313 U.S. 342, 61 S.Ct. 1015, 85 L.Ed. 1392, still applied, to the effect that the statute plainly accorded a prisoner seeking habeas corpus relief the right of testifying before a judge. Held:

1. Title 28 U.S.C. § 2243, like its predecessor, Rev.Stat. § 761, requires that the district judge personally conduct evidentiary hearings in federal habeas corpus cases. Holiday v. Johnson supra; United States v. Hayman, 342 U.S. 205, 231 n. 16, 72 S.Ct. 263, 269, 96 L.Ed. 232; Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 462—463, 73 S.Ct. 397, 409—411, 97 L.Ed. 469. Pp. 468—469.

2. It is clear from the text and legislative history of the Magistrates Act that Congress did not intend to alter the requirements of 28 U.S.C. § 2243, and therefore Local Rule 16, insofar as it authorizes the full-time Magistrate to hold habeas corpus evidentiary hearings, is invalid because it is 'inconsistent with the . . . laws of the United States' under § 636(b) of the Act, and because § 636(b) itself precludes a district judge from assigning a magistrate the duty of conducting an evidentiary hearing and limits the magistrate's review to proposing, not holding, such a hearing. Pp. 469—473.

3. The invalidity of Local Rule 16 is not cured by the procedure relating to electronic recording, which does not enable the district judge to evaluate credibility by personally hearing and observing the witnesses. Pp. 473—474.

483 F.2d 1131, 6 Cir., affirmed.

James M. Ringo, Frankfort, Ky., for petitioner.

Joseph G. Glass, Louisville, Ky., for respondent.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question here is whether federal magistrates are authorized to conduct evidentiary hearings in federal habeas corpus cases. In 1968, Congress enacted the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 631—639, to upgrade and expand the former United States commissioner system. The Act authorizes magistrates to exercise all powers formerly exercised by United States commissioners,1 and also, as a means of relieving the caseload burden of the federal district judges, empowers magistrates to try minor offenses when all parties consent, 2 and to perform such additional duties assigned by the district court as are 'not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States.' 3 Pursuant to the Act, the Judges of the United States District Court for the Western District of Kentucky amended Local Rule 16 of that court to provide:

'In addition to submitting such other reports and recommendations as may be required concerning petitions for writs of habeas corpus from state prisoners, the full-time Magistrate is directed to schedule and hear evidentiary matters deemed by the Magistrate to be necessary and proper in the determination of each such petition, and to report thereon with an appropriate recommendation for the disposition thereof to the District Judge having jurisdiction of the case. The Magistrate shall cause the testimony of such hearing to be recorded on suitable electronic sound recording equipment. He shall submit his proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law to the proper Judge for his consideration, copies of which shall be provided at that time to the petitioner and respondent, and the Magistrate shall expeditiously transmit the proceedings, including the recording of the testimony, to the proper District Judge. Upon written request of either party, filed within ten days from the date such is so transmitted to the District Judge having jurisdiction thereof, the District Judge shall proceed to hear the recording of the testimony given at the evidentiary hearing and give it de novo consideration.'

Respondent is a state prisoner whose petition for federal habeas corpus relief was assigned by the District Court to a full-time magistrate for processing under the rule. The part of the rule challenged here is that which directs the full-time magistrate 'to schedule and hear evidentiary matters (to be electronically recorded) deemed by the magistrate to be necessary and proper in the determination of . . . such petition, and to report thereon with an appropriate recommendation for the disposition thereof to the District Judge (who) . . . (u)pon . . . request . . . shall proceed to hear the recording of the testimony . . . and give it de novo consideration.' The question is whether this portion of the rule is invalid because 'inconsistent with the . . . laws of the United States' within the meaning of the Federal Magistrates Act, 28 U.S.C. § 636(b), or because § 636(b) itself should be construed to preclude district courts from assigning such duties to magistrates.

I

Respondent, Carl James Wedding, is a prisoner in the Kentucky State Penitentiary serving a life sentence imposed in 1949 by the Webster Circuit Court, Commonwealth of Kentucky, after a plea of guilty to a charge of willful murder. Wedding filed this petition for habeas corpus in 1971. After the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the initial dismissal of his petition, 456 F.2d 245 (1972), and remanded for an evidentiary hearing, the District Court invoked Local Rule 16 and assigned the case to a full-time Magistrate to hold the hearing. Wedding promptly moved that the Magistrate be disqualified and the hearing be reassigned to a District Judge, on the ground that the Federal Magistrates Act did not authorize district courts to assign to magistrates the duty to hold habeas corpus evidentiary hearings. When the District Court denied the motion, the Magistrate pro- ceeded with the hearing, and electronically recorded all testimonial evidence as required by Local Rule 16. Thereafter, the Magistrate transmitted the recording of the testimony to the District Judge and submitted written findings of fact and conclusions of law recommending that the petition be dismissed.

Wedding moved that the District Court give the matter a de novo hearing. The District Judge's response was to listen, as authorized by Local Rule 16, to the recording of the hearing before the Magistrate. On this basis and the Magistrate's findings and conclusions, the District Court entered an order dismissing respondent's petition.

On appeal Wedding renewed his challenge to Local Rule 16, relying upon Holiday v. Johnston, 313 U.s. 342, 61 S.Ct. 1015, 85 L.Ed. 1392 (1941). Holiday was also a federal habeas corpus case. There, after determining that the petition for writ of habeas corpus alleged facts which, if proved, would entitle the petitioner to relief, the District Judge issued a writ compelling the respondent to produce the petitioner before a designated United States Commissioner. The Commissioner held an evidentiary hearing at which the petitioner testified and the respondent submitted the depositions of two witnesses. On the basis of the evidence received, the Commissioner made findings of fact and stated conclusions of law recommending that the writ be denied. After hearing oral argument on the Commissioner's report, the District Judge entered an order discharging the writ.

This Court reversed, holding that the factfinding procedure employed failed to conform to Congress' express command in the Habeas Corpus Act that '(t)he court, or justice, or judge shall proceed in a summary way to determine the facts of the case, by hearing the testimony and arguments, and thereupon to dispose of the party as law and justice require.' Rev.Stat. § 761, 28 U.S.C. § 461 (1940 ed.) (emphasis added). The Court held hat the statute plainly accords a prisoner the right of testifying before a judge, stating:

'One of the essential elements of the determination of the crucial facts is the weighing and appraising of the testimony. Plainly it was intended that the prisoner might invoke the exercise of this appraisal by the judge himself. We cannot say that an appraisal of the truth of the prisoner's oral testimony by a master or commissioner is, in the light of the purpose and object of the proceeding, the equivalent of the judge's own exercise of the function of the trier of the facts.

'The District Judge should himself have heard the prisoner's...

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