Ex Parte Terry
Annotate this Case
128 U.S. 289 (1888)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Ex Parte Terry, 128 U.S. 289 (1888)
Ex Parte Terry
No. 6, Original
Submitted, October 18, 1888
Decided November 12, 1888
128 U.S. 289
This Court is not required to exercise the power conferred upon it by Rev.Stat. §§ 751-753, to inquire upon writ of habeas corpus into the cause of the restraint of the liberty of any person who is in jail under or by color of the authority of the United States, or who is in custody in violation of the Constitution of the United States, if it appears upon the petitioner's own showing that if brought into court and the cause of his commitment inquired into, he would be remanded to prison.
The power of circuit courts of the United States to punish contempts of their authority is incidental to their general power to exercise judicial functions, and the cases in which it may be employed are defined by acts of Congress.
An order committing for contempt is a nullity if the court making it was without jurisdiction of the person of the offender and he can be discharged upon writ of habeas corpus, though such writ cannot be used to correct mere errors and irregularities however flagrant.
Upon original application to this Court for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person committed by order of a circuit court of the United States for contempt committed in its presence, the facts recited in such order as constituting the contempt must be taken as true, and would be so taken upon a return to the writ if one were awarded.
A circuit court of the United States, upon the commission of a contempt in its presence, may, upon its own knowledge of the facts, without further proof, without issue or trial (and without hearing an explanation of the motives of the offender), immediately proceed to determine whether the facts justify punishment, and to inflict such punishment therefor as the law allows.
The jurisdiction of a circuit court to immediately inflict punishment for a contempt committed in its presence is not defeated by the voluntary retirement of the offender from the courtroom to a neighboring room in the same building after committing the offense; but it is within the discretion of the court either to at once make an order of commitment founded on its own knowledge of the facts or to postpone action until the offender can be arrested on process, brought back into its presence, and given an opportunity to make formal defense against the charge of contempt, and any abuse of that discretion is, at most, an irregularity or error not affecting the jurisdiction of the court.
The facts in this case, as detailed in the papers before the Court and as they must be regarded in this collateral proceeding, show nothing in conflict with the fundamental principles of Magna Charta nor do they show that the alleged offense was committed at a time preceding and separated from the commencement of the prosecution, but, on the contrary, the commission of the contempt, the retirement of the offender from the courtroom to the marshal's office in the same building, and the making of the order of commitment all took place substantially on the same occasion, and constituted in legal effect one continuous complete transaction, occurring on the same day and at the same session of the court.
This was an application for leave to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The petitioner alleged that he was unlawfully undergoing a term of imprisonment in California under a judgment rendered by the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of that state adjudging that he had been guilty of contempt in the presence of the court and ordering him to be punished therefor by imprisonment in the County Jail of the County of Alameda in that state until the further order of the court, but not to exceed the term of six
months. This order, which recited the facts constituting the contempt, is set forth at length in the application for leave to file the petition, and will be found, together with the petition, in the opinion of the Court, below. Reference is made to both the petition and the order there for a further understanding of the case.