Ex Parte Watkins
28 U.S. 193 (1830)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Ex Parte Watkins, 28 U.S. 3 Pet. 193 193 (1830)

Ex Parte Watkins

28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 193


A petition was presented by Tobias Watkins for a habeas corpus for the purpose of inquiring into the legality of his confinement in the jail of the County of Washington by virtue of a judgment of the Circuit Court of the United States of the District of Columbia rendered in a criminal prosecution instituted against him in that court. The petitioner alleged that the indictments under which he was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment charged no offense for which the prisoner was punishable in that court or of which that court could take cognizance, and consequently that the proceedings were coram non judice.

The Supreme Court has no jurisdiction in criminal cases which could reverse or affirm a judgment rendered in the circuit court in such a case where the record is brought up directly by writ of error.

The power of this Court to award writs of habeas corpus is conferred expressly on this Court by the fourteenth section of the Judicial Act, and has been repeatedly exercised. No doubt exists respecting the power.

No law of the United States prescribes the case in which this great writ shall be issued nor the power of the Court over the party brought up by it. The term used in the Constitution is one which is well understood, and the Judicial Act authorizes the Court, and all the courts of the United States and the judges thereof, to issue the writ "for the purpose of inquiring into the cause of commitment."

The nature and powers of the writ of habeas corpus.

A judgment in its nature concludes the subject on which it is rendered, and pronounces the law of the case. The judgment of a court of record whose jurisdiction is final is as conclusive on all the world as the judgment of this Court would be. It is as conclusive on this Court as on other courts. It puts an end to inquiry concerning the fact by deciding it.

With what propriety can this Court look into an indictment found in the circuit court and which has passed into judgment before that court? We have no power to examine the proceedings on a writ of error, and it would be strange if, under color of a writ to liberate an individual from an unlawful imprisonment, the Court could substantially reverse a judgment which the law has placed beyond its control. An imprisonment under a judgment cannot be unlawful unless that judgment be an absolute nullity, and it is not a nullity if the court has general jurisdiction of the subject, although it should be erroneous.

The Circuit Court for the District of Columbia is a court of record having general jurisdiction over criminal cases. An offense cognizable in any court is cognizable in that court.

If the offense be punishable by law, that court is competent to inflict the punishment. The judgment of such a tribunal has all the obligation which the judgment of any tribunal can have. To determine whether the offense charged in the indictment be legally punishable or not is among the most unquestionable of its powers and duties. The decision of this question is the exercise of its jurisdiction, whether its judgment be for or against the prisoner. The judgment is equally binding in one case and in the other, and must remain in

Page 28 U. S. 194

full force, unless reversed regularly by a superior court capable of reversing it. If this judgment is obligatory, no court can ever look behind it.

Had any offense against the laws of the United States been in fact committed, the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia could take cognizance of it. The question whether any offense was committed or was not committed -- that is, whether the indictment did or did not show that an offense had been committed -- was a question which this Court was competent to decide. If its judgment was erroneous -- a point which this Court does not determine -- still it is a judgment, and until reversed cannot be disregarded.

It is universally understood that the judgments of the courts of the United States, although their jurisdiction be not shown on the pleadings, are yet binding on all the world, and that this apparent want of jurisdiction can avail the party only on a writ of error. The judgment of the circuit court in a criminal case is of itself evidence of its own legality, and requires for its support no inspection of the indictment on which it is founded. The law trusts that court with the whole subject, and has not confided to this Court the power of revising its decisions. This Court cannot usurp that power by the instrumentality of a writ of habeas corpus. The judgment informs us that the commitment is legal, and with that information it is our duty to be satisfied.

The cases of United States v. Hamilton, 3 Dall. 17, Ex Parte Burford, 3 Cranch 447, Ex parte Bollman & Swartwout, 4 Cranch 75, and Ex Parte Kearney, 7 Wheat. 38, examined.

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 offenses 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 14 August, 1829, committed to the common gaol of Washington County, in which he has since been confined under color and pretense 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

Page 28 U. S. 195

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 offense at common law whatever cognizable in the course of criminal judicature, and especially no offense 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 $750, 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 favor of C. S. Fowler, on the navy agent at New York, and negotiated in the City of Washington on 16 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 $300, money of the United

Page 28 U. S. 196

states, by means of fraudulent misrepresentations made to the navy agent, contained in a letter addressed to him on 8 October, 1827, in which it was falsely stated that the said sum of $300 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 favor 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 $2,000, 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 favor of C. J. Fowler, in different sums amounting to $2,000, 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. 38, 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.

Page 28 U. S. 197

On the return of the rule, Mr. Coxe and Mr. Jones for the petitioner contended that no offense 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 v. Withers, 3 Cranch 331, 1 Pet.Condensed 552. Rose v. Himely, 4 Cranch 241, 8 U. S. 268. Doe v. Harden, 1 Paine's 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. 7 U. S. 3 Cranch 448, 1 Pet.Condensed 594. Bollman v. 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. 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 offenses," but this does not mean that extraordinary powers are given to make new offenses and to punish all acts deemed offenses. Offenses are the violations of known and established local laws. The statute means offenses 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

Page 28 U. S. 198

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 offenses 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 offense charged. Cited, Rose v. Himely, 5 Cranch 313. Griffith v. 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 authorized 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 favor of the jurisdiction. There has been enough shown here in this preliminary question to authorize 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 offenses 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 11 U. S. 7 Cranch 32; 1 Gall.

Page 28 U. S. 199

488; 2 East 814; 2 Maule & Selw. 378; 17 U. S. 4 Wheat. 405, 17 U. S. 424, 17 U. S. 430, 17 U. S. 410, 17 U. S. 416, 17 U. S. 427; 5 U. S. 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 v. 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 offense charged in an indictment found in that court.

The petition asserts

1. That no offense is charged in the indictment cognizable by the law of Maryland.

2. That no offense 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 offense 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 offenses committed in the district. In the legitimate exercise of this jurisdiction to decide what is an offense, it is said to have exceeded its jurisdiction. By what authority can this decision of a court of general, final, criminal jurisdiction be reexamined here? The court below has decided that the facts of the case amount to a fraud on the

Page 28 U. S. 200

government, committed by false pretenses. It may be they have erred in their judgment, but the error cannot be revised here. They have jurisdiction to decide that the offense 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 offense is; 3. to punish after conviction. These are exclusive and final powers.

There is no power or authority in this Court to reexamine 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 v. 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 has carefully guarded against this; it has given appellate powers in civil, admiralty, and maritime cases and has 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 authorized 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.

Page 28 U. S. 201

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.