United States v. Bathgate
246 U.S. 220 (1918)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Bathgate, 246 U.S. 220 (1918)

United States v. Bathgate

Nos. 575-580

Argued January 16, 17, 1918

Decided March 4, 1918

246 U.S. 220

ERROR TO THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF OHIO

Syllabus

It is a settled rule in the construction of statutes defining crimes that there can be no constructive offenses, and that, to warrant punishment, the case must be plainly and unmistakably within the statute.

Criminal Code, § 19 (Rev.Stats., § 5508), punishing conspiracies to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, etc., does not include a conspiracy to bribe voters at a general election within a state where presidential electors, a United States senator, and a representative in Congress are to be chosen.

This section means now what it meant when first enacted, as part of the Act of May 31, 1870, c. 114, 16 Stat. 140; see Crim.Code, §§ 339, 341; it aims to guard definite personal rights or privileges, capable of enforcement by a court, such as the right to vote for federal candidates, but not the political, nonjudicable right or privilege, common to all, that the public shall be protected against harmful acts, to which latter appertain the general interests of candidate and voter in the fair and honest conduct of such elections.

In reaching this result, the section is construed subject to the rule of strict construction above stated, and in the light of the policy of Congress not to interfere with elections within a state except by clear and specific provisions.

Page 246 U. S. 221

The express repeal of that section of the original act which dealt with bribery (Act of May 31, 1870, supra, § 19) strengthens the conclusion.

Affirmed.

The cases are stated in the opinion.

Page 246 U. S. 223

MR. JUSTICE McREYNOLDS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Except as to parties, the indictments in these six cases are alike. Each contains three counts; the first and second undertake to allege a conspiracy to injure and oppress in violation of § 19, Criminal Code, and the third a conspiracy to defraud the United States, contrary to § 37. Demurrers were sustained upon the ground that, rightly construed, neither section applies to the specified acts.

Section 37, originally part of the Act of March 2, 1867, c. 169, 14 Stat. 484, provides:

"If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States or to defraud the United States in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such parties do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each of the parties to such conspiracy shall be fined not more than ten thousand dollars, or imprisoned not more than two years, or

Page 246 U. S. 224

both."

It was considered in United States v. Gradwell,243 U. S. 476, and held not applicable in circumstances similar to those here presented. The government has accordingly abandoned the third count.

Section 19 provides:

"If two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same, or if two or more persons go in disguise on the highway, or on the premises of another, with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege so secured, they shall be fined not more than five thousand dollars and imprisoned not more than ten years, and shall, moreover, be thereafter ineligible to any office, or place of honor, profit, or trust created by the Constitution or laws of the United States."

And the two counts based thereon charge defendants with conspiring to injure candidates for presidential electors, the United States Senate and representative in Congress at the regular election in Ohio, November 7, 1916, also qualified electors who might properly vote thereat, in the free exercise and enjoyment of certain rights and privileges secured by Constitution and laws of the United States, namely the right (a) of being a candidate, (b) that only those duly qualified should vote, (c) that the results should be determined by voters who had not been bribed, and (d) that the election board should make a true and accurate count of votes legally cast by qualified electors, and no others. The indictment further alleged the conspiracy was carried into effect as intended by purchasing votes of certain electors and causing election boards to receive them and make inaccurate returns.

The real point involved is whether § 19 denounces as criminal a conspiracy to bribe voters at a general election within a state where presidential electors, a United States

Page 246 U. S. 225

Senator, and a representative in Congress are to be chosen. Our concern is not with the power of Congress, but with the proper interpretation of action taken by it. This must be ascertained in view of the settled rule that "there can be no constructive offenses, and before a man can be punished his case must be plainly and unmistakably within the statute" (United States v. Lacher,134 U. S. 624, 134 U. S. 628), and the policy of Congress to leave the conduct of elections at which its members are chosen to state law alone except where it may have expressed a clear purpose to establish some further or definite regulation.

Departing from the course long observed, by Act of May 31, 1870, c. 114, 16 Stat. 140, Congress undertook to prescribe a comprehensive system intended to secure freedom and integrity of elections. Section 19 of that act declares:

"That if, at any election for representative or delegate in the Congress of the United States, any person shall knowingly . . . by force, threat, menace, intimidation, bribery, reward, or offer, or promise thereof, or otherwise unlawfully prevent any qualified voter of any state of the United States of America or of any territory thereof from freely exercising the right of suffrage, . . . or compel or induce by any such means, or otherwise, any officer of an election in any such state or territory to receive a vote from a person not legally qualified or entitled to vote, . . . or aid, counsel, procure, or advise any such voter, person, or officer to do any act hereby made a crime, . . . every such person shall be deemed guilty of a crime, and shall for such crime be liable to prosecution in any court of the United States of competent jurisdiction, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars, or by imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or both, in the discretion of the court, and shall pay the costs of prosecution."

In pursuance of a well understood policy, the Act of February 8, 1894, c. 25, 28 Stats.

Page 246 U. S. 226

36, repealed the foregoing and other kindred sections in Act of 1870, but left in effect § 6, then § 5508, Revised Statutes, and now § 19, Criminal Code. See United States v. Mosley,238 U. S. 383; United States v. Gradwell, supra.

The government in effect maintains that lawful voters at an election for presidential electors, senator, and member of Congress and also the candidates for those places have secured to them by Constitution or laws of the United States the right and privilege that it shall be fairly and honestly conducted, and that Congress intended by § 6, Act of 1870, to punish interference with such right and privilege through conspiracy to influence voters by bribery.

Section 19, Criminal Code, of course, now has the same meaning as when first enacted as § 6, Act of 1870 (see Criminal Code, §§ 339, 341), and, considering the policy of Congress not to interfere with elections within a state except by clear and specific provisions, together with the rule respecting construction of criminal statutes, we cannot think it was intended to apply to conspiracies to bribe voters. Bribery, expressly denounced in another section of the original act, is not clearly within the words used, and the reasoning relied on to extend them thereto would apply in respect of almost any act reprehensible in itself, or forbidden by state statutes, and supposed injuriously to affect freedom, honesty, or integrity of an election. This conclusion is strengthened by express repeal of the section applicable in terms to bribery, and we think is rendered entirely clear by considering the nature of the rights or privileges fairly within intendment of original § 6.

The right or privilege to be guarded, as indicated both by the language employed and context, was a definite, personal one, capable of enforcement by a court, and not the political, nonjudicable one common to all that the public shall be protected against harmful acts which is

Page 246 U. S. 227

here relied on. The right to vote is personal, and we have held it is shielded by the section in question. Ex parte Yarbrough,110 U. S. 651; United States v. Mosley, supra. The same is true of the right to make homestead entry, United States v. Waddell,112 U. S. 76; also, of the right of one held by a United States marshal to protection against lawless violence, Logan v. United States,144 U. S. 263. While the opinion in United States v. Gradwell, supra, does not determine the precise question now presented, it proceeds upon reasoning which contravenes the theory urged by counsel for the government.

The court below properly construed the statute, and its judgments are

Affirmed.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.