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BAKER V. GRICE, 169 U. S. 284 (1898)

U.S. Supreme Court

Baker v. Grice, 169 U.S. 284 (1898)

Baker v. Grice

No. 336

Argued January 26, 1898

Decided February 21, 1898

169 U.S. 284


While circuit courts of the United States have jurisdiction, under the circumstances set forth in the statement of the case (below), to issue a writ of habeas corpus, yet those courts ought not to exercise that jurisdiction by the discharge of a prisoner unless in cases of peculiar urgency, but should leave the prisoner to be dealt with by the courts of the state, and even after a final determination of the case by those courts should ordinarily leave the prisoner to his remedy by writ of error from this Court.

Upon the facts appearing in this case, no sufficient case was made out for the exercise of the jurisdiction of the circuit court by the issue of a

Page 169 U. S. 285

writ of habeas corpus to take the prisoner out of the custody of the state court.

It is the rule of courts, both state and federal, not to decide constitutional questions until the necessity for such decision arises in the record before the court.

This appeal is from an order of the United States Circuit Court for the Northern District of Texas, made upon a return to a writ of habeas corpus issued by that court to inquire into the cause for the detention of the petitioner, William Grice, who, it was alleged, was unlawfully restrained of his liberty by, and held in the custody of, J. W. Baker, the Sheriff of McLennan County, Texas. After a hearing, the circuit court, on the 22d of February, 1897, discharged the petitioner. 79 F. 627.

The petition for the writ was filed on the 9th of December, 1896, and therein the petitioner, among other things, made the following allegations: that he was unlawfully restrained of his liberty by the Sheriff of McLennan County, Texas, having been surrendered by his sureties under a recognizance which he had theretofore given; that he was detained by the sheriff under an indictment preferred against him and other citizens of the United States on the 21st of November, 1894. The indictment charged that William Grice, E. T. Hathaway, and several others, named in the indictment, unlawfully combined and engaged among themselves and with others, who were unknown to the grand jury, in a conspiracy against trade, and that they had created a trust, by a combination of their capital, skill, and acts for the purpose of creating and carrying out restrictions in trade. The indictment was based upon an act passed by the Legislature of Texas on the 30th of March, 1889, which is generally known and described as the "Anti-Trust Act" of that state. When the indictment was presented, the defendants (including the petitioner herein) were arrested and brought before the proper court, and entered into a recognizance conditioned for their appearance in court from day to day, and term to term, to answer the indictment. On the second of December, 1895, the case was regularly called, and the defendants, pursuant to the provisions of the Code of Criminal

Page 169 U. S. 286

Procedure of the Texas, announced a severance, and thereupon E. T. Hathaway, one of the defendants named in the indictment, was placed on trial to answer the charges contained therein. Before proceeding to trial on the merits, he in effect demurred to the indictment on the ground, among others, that the above-named act of the State of Texas was a violation of the federal Constitution for reasons which he stated. The demurrer was overruled, and the trial of the cause was then proceeded with, and on the 12th of December, 1895, a verdict of guilty as charged in the indictment was rendered, and the jury assessed defendant's punishment at a fine of $50. Hathaway duly took proceedings for the purpose of obtaining a review by the Court of Criminal Appeals of the State of Texas of the various matters raised by the demurrer and in the course of his trial.

Under the law of Texas, one who is convicted of a felony, although the punishment imposed is only a fine, is still necessarily subjected to confinement in the jail pending the determination of any appeal which he may take, and under that provision, the defendant Hathaway was subjected to confinement in jail pending the determination of his appeal.

It was argued in the court of criminal appeals on the 29th day of January, 1896, and was not decided until the 24th day of June, 1896, leaving the defendant Hathaway, in the meantime, incarcerated in the McLennan county jail. On the last-mentioned day, the court of criminal appeals decided the case, but did not pass upon the constitutionality of the act under which the indictment was framed, although that question had been raised in the court below, and presented to the appellate court on the argument of the appeal. The court decided the appeal upon another ground, which the petitioner herein calls a technical ground of pleading, the court holding that, because the indictment presented failed to charge Hathaway with knowingly carrying out, as agent, the stipulations, purposes, prices, etc., under the alleged conspiracy, the admission of evidence to that effect over the objection of the defendant was unwarranted in law, and the conviction was therefore invalid. The appellate court thereupon

Page 169 U. S. 287

reversed the judgment, and remanded the cause for a trial de novo.

Since the rendition of this judgment, two terms of the criminal court in the proper county have been held, one of which was drawing near its close at the time that the petitioner filed his petition, December 9, 1896, and the petitioner then makes this allegation. That

"while this petitioner, together with his codefendants who have been arrested and placed in recognizance, have stood ready and anxious for trial upon said indictment, yet said case has not even been called by the court for trial, nor has said cause been set for trial, but the same has been permitted to remain upon the docket of said court, subjecting this petitioner and his codefendants not only to the shame and contumely of an indictment for felony, but denying to him and his codefendants the right to be heard in his defense in said court as a citizen of the United States, and where this petitioner, as well as his codefendants, are without remedy in the state courts of Texas for the assertion and vindication of their rights under the Constitution of the United States."

It is then shown in the petition that, on the 24th of November, 1896, Hathaway, one of his codefendants, procured from the circuit court of the United States a writ of habeas corpus, requiring the Sheriff of McLennan County, who then had him in custody, to produce the body of said Hathaway, and that the writ was served upon the sheriff, who made return that he held his prisoner under the indictment above mentioned.

A hearing before the court was then set for the 7th of December, 1896, and notice thereof was given to the sheriff and prosecuting officers of the County of McLennan advising them of the proceedings and of the time when the matter would be inquired into. On the 7th of December, the state court dismissed the indictment and prosecution as against Hathaway, leaving the same to stand unimpaired as to the petitioner herein and his codefendants. This action on the part of the state court, the petitioner charges, was for the purpose of defeating the jurisdiction of the United States court upon the writ of habeas corpus which had then been issued,

Page 169 U. S. 288

and to thereby prevent that court from passing upon the constitutional rights of said Hathaway. After this discharge by the state court, the sheriff made return, setting up that fact, and that he claimed no further right or custody over the relator.

The petitioner then avers that the act in question violates the Constitution of the United States for the reasons which he names, and that, by reason of the premises,

"he is without remedy for the assertion and vindication of his rights as a citizen of the United States under the Constitution thereof; that he has stood under indictment for felony, charged with the violation of said alleged statute of the State of Texas, approved March 30, 1889, for the period of two years, without being afforded an opportunity by the state courts of Texas for the assertion of his rights, as aforesaid, as a citizen of the United States. Your petitioner believes, and so avers, that it is the purpose and intent of the state authorities of the State of Texas to prevent, if possible, any appeal by this petitioner to the courts of the United States for the vindication of his rights, as aforesaid, as a citizen of the United States. In view of the premises herein recited, and without the interposition of this honorable court for his due protection and the due conservation of his rights as a citizen of the United States, he is practically remediless by an appeal in regular course or otherwise."

The petitioner therefore asked for a writ of habeas corpus in order that he might be discharged from custody.

The writ having been duly served, the sheriff made return showing that he held the petitioner by virtue of a writ issued upon the indictment, and he further alleged that the authorities had been anxious and ready to accord all the defendants under the indictment that speedy trial which they were guarantied under the Constitution and the laws of the State of Texas; that the delay had come in great part from the action of the defendants; that at the first term of court after the indictment was presented, the case was set down for trial on the 14th of March, and was thereafter continued by agreement between the state and the defendants; that at the succeeding

Page 169 U. S. 289

September term, the case was set down for trial on October 4th, and on that day it was postponed upon motion of the defendants, and set down for the November term, to be tried on the second of December, 1895, and that when the cause was called on that day, the defendants, including the petitioner, claimed a severance, to which they were entitled under the laws of Texas, and forced the state to try Hathaway alone, thereby avoiding and defeating a trial of the petitioner herein. The sheriff further returned that the purpose of the petitioner and his codefendants was, as he believed, to defeat the jurisdiction of the courts of Texas in the administration of its laws, and that the relator and his codefendants had agreed among themselves to have their several sureties surrender them into the custody of the sheriff, and that, by their own acts and at their own request and by their own procurement, the sureties of petitioner and his codefendants did surrender them, and on the day of the surrender, and contemporaneously with it, a writ of habeas corpus from the circuit court was served upon the sheriff commanding him to produce before the court, instanter, the body of petitioner.

Attached to the return were the affidavits of the sureties of the petitioner, in which they said in substance that the petitioner wanted them to surrender him to the sheriff on the day named, and that, by his request, they went to the lawyer's office and met the petitioner, and accompanied him to the office of the sheriff, where they surrendered him to the sheriff.

The petitioner filed a replication which was in substance an admission of the truth of many of the allegations made in the return and the accompanying affidavits, but denied their materiality and claimed that they furnished no answer to the allegations of the petitioner as contained in his petition. The relator did deny that he had conspired or confederated for the purpose of defeating the jurisdiction of the courts of Texas or the administration of its laws. On the contrary, he alleged that for two years he and his codefendants had submitted to the jurisdiction of the courts of Texas for the purpose of trial, and that when it became evident to the petitioner and his codefendants that a trial was not to be had except at some

Page 169 U. S. 290

indefinite period in the future, if ever, then the petitioner,

"as a citizen of the United States, proceeded to exercise his rights as such citizen, and to call upon the courts of the United States to vindicate his rights, as he was entitled under the Constitution and laws of the United States, and not for the purpose of defeating the jurisdiction of said courts of Texas, but for the purposes as indicated."

After hearing, the parties, the circuit court decided that a proper case had been made out for its interference by virtue of the writ of habeas corpus, and thereupon held that the statute of the State of Texas called the "Anti-Trust Law" was a violation of the Constitution of the United States, and consequently void. The court therefore discharged the petitioner, and from that order this appeal has been taken.

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