Ex parte Royall
117 U.S. 241 (1886)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ex parte Royall, 117 U.S. 241 (1886)

Ex parte Royall

Argued January 7, 8, 1886

Decided March 1, 1886

117 U.S. 241

Syllabus

Circuit Courts of the United States have jurisdiction on habeas corpus to discharge from custody a person who is restrained of his liberty in violation of the Constitution of the United States but who, at the time, is held under State process for trial on an indictment charging him with an offence against the laws of the State.

When a person is in custody under process from a State court of original jurisdiction for an alleged offence against the laws of such State, and it is claimed that he is restrained of his liberty in violation of the Constitution of the United States, the Circuit Court of the United States has a discretion whether it will discharge him in advance of his trial in the court in which he is indicted; but this discretion should be subordinated to any special circumstances requiring immediate action. After conviction of the accused in the State court, the Circuit Court has still a discretion whether he shall be put to his writ of error to the highest court of the State or whether it will proceed by writ of habeas corpus summarily to determine whether he is restrained of his liberty in violation of the Constitution of the United States.

On the 29th day of May, 1885, William L. Royall filed two petitions in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern district of Virginia, each verified by oath, and addressed to the judges of that court.

In one of them, he represents, in substance, that he is a citizen of the United States; that, in June, 1884, as a representative of a citizen of New York -- who was the owner of certain bonds issued by Virginia under the act approved March 30, 1871, entitled "An act to provide for the funding and payment of the public debt," -- he sold in the city of Richmond, to Richard W. Maury, for the sum of $10.50 in current money, a genuine past-due coupon, cut from one of said bonds in petitioner's presence, and which he received from the owner, with instructions to sell it in that city for the best market price; that said coupon bears upon its face the contract of Virginia that it should be received in payment of all taxes, debts, and demands due that Commonwealth; that he acted in said matter without compensation; and, consequently, the transaction was a sale of the coupon by its owner. The petition proceeded:

"That on the second day of June, 1884, the grand jury of the city of Richmond, Virginia, found an indictment against your petitioner for selling said coupon without a license; that the before-mentioned coupon is the only one that your petitioner has sold; that your petitioner was thereupon arrested and committed to the custody of N. M. Lee, sergeant of the City of Richmond, to be tried on said indictment, and that he will be prosecuted and tried on said indictment for selling said coupon without a license, under the provisions of Section 65 of the Act of March 15, 1884, relating to licenses generally, and the general provisions of the state law in respect to doing business without a license; that your petitioner had no license under the laws of Virginia to sell coupons; that the act of the General Assembly under which your petitioner was arrested and is being prosecuted requires any person who sells one or more of the said tax-receivable coupons issued by said State of Virginia to pay to said State, before said sale, a special license tax of $1,000, and, in addition thereto, a tax of twenty per cent, on the face value of each coupon sold. "

Page 117 U. S. 243

"That said act does not require the seller of any other coupon, or the seller of anything else, to pay said tax, but it is directed exclusively against the sellers of such coupons; that your petitioner is being prosecuted under said act because he sold said coupon without having first paid to said State said special license tax, and without paying to her said special tax of twenty per cent. on the face value thereof; that said act of the General Assembly of Virginia is repugnant to section ten of article one of the Constitution of the United States, and is therefore null and void; that if the said State can refuse to pay the said coupons at maturity, and then tax the sale of them to taxpayers, she may thus indirectly repudiate then absolutely, and thus effectually destroy their value."

"That your petitioner has been on bail from the time he was arrested until now, but that his bail has now surrendered him, and he is at this time in the custody of the said N. M. Lee, sergeant of the City of Richmond, to be prosecuted and tried on said indictment; that he is held in violation of the Constitution of the United States, as he is advised."

In the other petition, he represents, in substance, that, under the provisions of the before-mentioned act of 1871, Virginia issued her bonds, with interest coupons attached, and bearing upon their face a contract to receive them in payment of all taxes, debts, and demands due to that Commonwealth; that another act, approved January 14, 1882, provides that said coupons shall not be received in payment of taxes until after judgment rendered in a suit thereon according to its provisions; that the validity of the latter act was sustained in Antoni v. Greenhow,107 U. S. 769, upon the ground that it furnished taxpayers with a sufficient remedy to enforce said contract; that, by the provisions of sections 90 and 91 of chapter 450 of the laws of Virginia for the year 1883-84, it is provided that attorneys at law who have been licensed to practice law less than five years shall pay a license tax of $15, and those licensed more than five years $25, and that such license shall entitle the attorney paying it to practice law in all the courts of the State; that it is further provided by said 91st section that no attorney shall bring any suit on

Page 117 U. S. 244

said coupons under said Act of January 14, 1882, unless he pays, in addition to the above-mentioned license tax, a further special license tax of $250; that petitioner had been licensed to practice law more than five years, and that, in the month of April, 1884, he paid $25, receiving a revenue license to practice law in all the courts of the State, but that he had not paid the additional special license tax provided for in said 91st section; that, under employment of a client who had tendered coupons, issued by Virginia under the act of March 30, 1871, to the Treasurer of Richmond City in payment of his taxes, and thereafter had paid his tax in money -- the coupons having been received by that officer for identification and verification, and certified to the Hustings Court of the City of Richmond -- he brought suit under the Act of January 14, 1882, to recover the money back after proving the genuineness of the coupons; that the grand jury of the City of Richmond thereupon found an indictment against him for bringing the suit without having paid the special license tax; that he brought it after he had paid his license tax above mentioned, and while he had a license to practice law until April, 1885; that he was thereupon arrested by order of the Hustings Court of Richmond, committed to the custody of N. M. Lee, sergeant of that City, and is about to be tried and punished under said indictment; that the act requiring him to pay a special license tax in addition to his general license tax is repugnant to Section 10 of Article 1 of the Constitution of the United States, and is therefore null and void; and that the act providing for punishing him for not paying the special license tax is likewise repugnant to the Constitution. After stating, at some length, the grounds upon which he contends that the before-mentioned acts are repugnant to the Constitution, the petitioner avers that he

"is now in the custody of the said N. M. Lee, sergeant of the City of Richmond, under said indictment, and he is therefore restrained of his liberty in violation of the Constitution of the United States."

Each petition concludes with a prayer that the Circuit Court award a writ of habeas corpus directed to that officer,

Page 117 U. S. 245

commanding him to produce the body of the petitioner before that court, together with the cause of his detention, and that he have judgment discharging him from custody. In each case, the petition was dismissed upon the ground that the Circuit Court was without jurisdiction to discharge the prisoner from prosecution.

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