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United States Supreme Court

28 U.S. 193

E Parte Tobias Watkins

THIS case came before the court on a petition for a habeas corpus, on the relation of Tobias Watkins, setting forth that at May term 1829 of the circuit court of the district of Columbia, in the county of Washington, certain presentments were found against him; upon three of which trials were had, and verdicts passed against him; upon which judgments were pronounced, purporting to condemn him to the payment of certain pecuniary fines and costs, and certain terms of imprisonment for the supposed offences therein. For the nature and terms of the indictments, and of the convictions and judgments thereon, the petition referred to the same. Copies and exemplifications of the records of the proceedings were annexed to the petition.

The petition proceeded to state, that, immediately on the rendition of the judgments, and in the pretended pursuance and execution of the same, the petitioner was, on the 14th of August 1829, committed to the common gaol of Washington county, in which he has since been confined, under colour and pretence of the authority, force, and effect of the said indictments; that he is well advised by counsel that the said convictions and judgments are illegal and wholly void upon their faces, and give no valid authority or warrant whatever for his commitment and imprisonment; that the indictments do not, nor does any one of them charge or import any offence at common law whatever, cognizable in the course of criminal judicature, and especially no offence cognizable or punishable by the said circuit court; and that his imprisonment is wholly unjust, and without any lawful ground, warrant or authority whatever.

The petitioner prays the benefit of the writ of habeas corpus, to be directed to the marshal of the district of Columbia, in whose custody, as keeper of the gaol of the district, the petitioner is, commanding him to bring the body of the petitioner before the court, with the cause of his commitment; and especially commanding him to return with the writ the record of the proceedings upon the indictments, with the judgments thereupon; and to certify whether the petitioner be not actually imprisoned by the supposed authority, and in virtue of the said judgment.

The first indictment referred to in the petition, charged the petitioner as fourth auditor of the treasury of the United States, and as such having assigned to him the keeping of the accounts of the receipts and expenditures of the public moneys of the United States in regard to the navy department; with having obtained for his private use the sum of seven hundred and fifty dollars, the money of the United States, by means of a draft for that sum on the navy agent of the United States at New York, which draft was drawn by him in the city of Washington, in favour of C. S. Fowler, on the navy agent at New York, and negotiated in the city of Washington on the 16th of January 1828; the said sum of money having been by him represented to the secretary of the navy as required by the navy agent for the uses of the United States, and so represented in a requisition made to the navy agent for a warrant on the treasury of the United States for the amount of the draft, with other sums included in the requisition.

The second indictment charged the petitioner with having received from the navy agent of the United States at New York, the sum of three hundred dollars, money of the United States, by means of fraudulent misrepresentations made to the navy agent, contained in a letter addressed to him on the 8th of October 1827, in which it was falsely stated, that the said sum of three hundred dollars was required for the use of the United States; and that the same was so obtained from the navy agent, by a draft on him in favour of C. J. Fowler, by whom the money was paid to the petitioner, on his having negotiated the draft.

The third indictment charged the petitioner with having procured to be drawn from the treasury of the United States the sum of two thousand dollars, by means of a requisition from the secretary of the navy; a blank requisition left by that officer in his department having, on the representation of the petitioner that the same was required for the public service by the navy agent at Boston, been filled up for this purpose; and for which he drew and negotiated drafts in the city of Washington, at different times, in favour of C. J. Fowler, in different sums amounting to two thousand dollars, and appropriated the same to his own use.

Messrs Jones and Coxe moved for a rule on the United States, to show cause why a habeas corpus should not issue, and proposed that the argument should take place on the motion upon all the points involved in the case. Mr Berrien, attorney general, objected to an argument on the motion. He stated that he was prepared to go into the argument on the return of the rule, but was not willing to do so on the motion.

The counsel for the petitioner observed, that in Kearney's case, 7 Wheat. the argument took place on the motion; and, as in this case the petition brought up the indictments and the judgments of the circuit court, the whole matter was now fully before the court.

Mr Chief Justice Marshall said, that the counsel for the petitioner and the attorney general might arrange among themselves as they thought proper when the argument should come on, either on the motion or the return. This not having been done, the rule was warded returnable on the following motion day.

On the return of the rule, Mr Coxe and Mr Jones for the petitioner contended, that no offence was charged in the indictments which was within the jurisdiction of the circuit court for the county of Washington, and therefore all the proceedings of that court were nullities and void.

1. All proceedings of a court beyond its jurisdiction are void. Wise vs. Withers, 3 Cranch, 331, 1 Peters's Condensed Rep. 552. Rose vs. Himely, 4 Cranch, 241, 268, 552. Doe vs. Harden, 1 Paine's Rep. 55, 58, 59.

2. In a case where a court acting beyond its jurisdiction has committed a party to prison, a habeas corpus is the proper remedy, and affords the means of trying the question. 3 Cranch, 448, 1 Peters's Condensed Rep. 594. Bollman vs. Swartwout, 4 Cranch, 75. Kearney's case, 7 Wheat. 38.

3. The writ does not issue of course, but the party must show that he is imprisoned by a court having no jurisdiction. 1 Chitty's Crim. Law, 124, 125. 7 Wheat. 88. A habeas corpus is a proper remedy for revising the proceedings of a court in a criminal case. 1 Chitty's Crim. Law, 180.

It was argued for the petitioner, that it has been decided in many cases, that a writ of habeas corpus may issue so as to make its action equivalent to that of a writ of error. 1 Chit. Crim. Law, 180.

The circuit court is a court of general criminal jurisdiction in cases within the local law, and within the law of Maryland. What is the effect of the clause of the act of congress establishing this court? It is to give it cognizance of 'all offences;' but this does not mean that extraordinary powers are given to make new offences, and to punish all acts deemed offences. Offences are the violations of known and established local laws. The statute means offences against the laws of the United States in their sovereignty, and against the local laws of the district.

For the purposes of this inquiry it is immaterial whether the circuit court is or is not of limited jurisdiction. However extended its jurisdiction may be, it has defined limits, and these restrain it.

Suppose the court should entertain jurisdiction of cases certainly not criminal, would not a decision in such a case be a nullity? As if on the face of an indictment an act which is of a civil nature should be made criminal. The court is limited to offences committed within its jurisdiction. Should it take cognizance of an act done in England, would not this court interfere?

It is admitted that the judgment of a court of competent jurisdiction is conclusive, when the case is one properly submitted to the operation of that jurisdiction. But it is not sufficient to say that its jurisdiction is general; it should also appear it had jurisdiction of the offence charged. Cited Rose vs. Himely, 5 Cranch, 313. Griffith vs. Frazier, 8 Cranch, 9.

It is asked whether this court will look into any criminal case which has passed under the judgment of the circuit court. Suppose a sentence imposed not authorised by law; would not this court interfere by its writ of habeas corpus?

It is not contended that every excess of jurisdiction is within the principle claimed. There is a difference between a rule which is reasonable, and that which goes into extravagance. It may not be defined, but it can be felt; and this is a case where this rule can apply. The position that the decision of an inferior court of the United States in a criminal case cannot be inquired into unless there is an appellate jurisdiction in such cases, goes too far; and runs into the argumentum in absurdum.

In all the cases which have come before this court, in which a writ of habeas corpus has been applied for, the decision has been in favour of the jurisdiction. There has been enough shown here in this preliminary question to authorise the writ, as the only inquiry is, whether the judgment of the circuit court is conclusive upon all the matters before the court.

The counsel for the petitioner proceeded to argue at large upon authorities that the offences charged in the indictments were not cognizable in the circuit court. As this point was not noticed in the opinion of the court, the argument is omitted. They cited 7 Cranch, 32. 1 Wheat. 415. 1 Gall. 488. 2 East, 814. 2 Maule and Selw. 378. 4 Wheat. 405, 424, 430, 410, 416, 427. 1 Cranch, 164.

The attorney general denied that it was competent for this court to revise the proceedings of the circuit court in a criminal case, or to award a habeas corpus to bring into revision such proceedings.

No such case was to be found since the organization of the court; and as writs of error and appeals are expressly limited to cases which are not criminal, the issuing of such a writ, and for such a purpose, would be contrary to law.

He contended, that the case of Bollman vs. Swartwout was not an authority for the claim of the petitioner. That was a case of bail, and not a case in which the judgment of a court had passed. In Kearney's case the writ of habeas corpus was refused; the petitioner being in confinement for contempt, which was considered equivalent to a sentence of the court.

It is now to be decided in the case before the court, whether they will, through the means of a habeas corpus, revise the sentence of an inferior court in a criminal case, so as to determine whether it had jurisdiction of the offence charged in an indictment found in that court.

The petition asserts, 1. That no offence is charged in the indictment cognizable by the law of Maryland.

2. That no offence is charged which is cognizable by the laws of the United States.

As to the first, if it is competent to this court to examine the point, the whole case of the petition is open, as the circuit court is said to have erred in deciding that the offence was cognizable by it. The circuit court of the district of Columbia has jurisdiction, such as is possessed by all other circuit courts of the United States; and it has also general jurisdiction of offences committed in the district. In the legitimate exercise of this jurisdiction to decide what is an offence, it is said to have exceeded its jurisdiction. By what authority can this decision of a court of general, final, criminal jurisdiction, be re-examined here? The court below has decided that the facts of the case amount to a fraud on the government, committed by false pretences. It may be they have erred in their judgment; but the error cannot be revised here. They have jurisdiction to decide that the offence was committed in the district, and they have so decided. The power of the court is, 1. To try the offender. 2. To determine what the offence is. 3. To punish after conviction. These are exclusive and final powers.

There is no power or authority in this court to re-examine a decision of a circuit court as to its jurisdiction in a criminal case. The proposition that the decisions of a court in a case beyond its jurisdiction are void, although true in the abstract, is practically false. Such decisions must stand, unless there is power in another court to reverse them. The truth of this is maintained in civil as well as criminal cases.

It must appear that there is jurisdiction in a superior court to award a writ of error, or a habeas corpus, which may bring up the question; not alone that the judgment of the court was erroneous.

If this court possesses such powers, it must be derived from one of three sources: 1. From the act of congress appropriating and regulating the powers of this court. No powers are given by the act to revise the proceedings of the circuit court in criminal cases. 2. From the powers of this court as the supreme court, to exercise supervision over all inferior courts. In the case of Bollman vs. Swartwout, the court have said they have no such powers. 3. Can those powers be derived from the power to issue writs of habeas corpus, and by this to revise the judgments of inferior judicatures exercising criminal jurisdiction?

Congress have carefully guarded against this: they have given appellate powers in civil, admiralty and maritime cases, and have refused them in criminal cases. It cannot be supposed that when thus refused, they can be exerted under the writ of habeas corpus, which this court is authorised to issue. There are many cases for the employment of this writ, without claiming for it the rights asserted to belong to it by the counsel for the petitioner.

Mr Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).