Bassett v. United States, 137 U.S. 496 (1890)


U.S. Supreme Court

Bassett v. United States, 137 U.S. 496 (1890)

Bassett v. United States

No. 110

Argued December 10, 1890

Decided December 22, 1890

137 U.S. 496



U.S. Supreme Court

Bassett v. United States, 137 U.S. 496 (1890) Bassett v. United States

No. 110

Argued December 10, 1890

Decided December 22, 1890

137 U.S. 496




The original bill of exceptions in this case, signed by the trial judge and also certified by the clerk of the trial court, was transmitted to the Supreme Court of the Territory of Utah, and was filed, together with the record of the case, in that court. Held, that its identification and authentication were perfect, and were sufficient to bring the questions raised by the record within the jurisdiction of this Court.

The wife of a married man is not a competent witness in Utah against her husband on trial under an indictment for polygamy.

On the 23d of November, 1886, the grand jury of the District Court for the First Judicial District of Utah Territory found an indictment for polygamy against the plaintiff in error, charging him with having married one Kate Smith on the 14th day of August, 1884, when his lawful wife, Sarah Ann Williams, was still living and undivorced.

A motion was made to set aside and dismiss the indictment

Page 137 U. S. 497

on the ground that it had not been found and presented in the manner prescribed by law because it had been found without any other evidence than that of the legal wife. This motion was overruled.

The accused pleaded not guilty and was tried by a jury on the 6th day of January, 1887. He was convicted, and, on the same day, sentenced to be imprisoned in the penitentiary of Utah for five years and to pay a fine of five hundred dollars.

An appeal was taken to the Supreme Court of Utah Territory, where the judgment of the district court was affirmed. The defendant sued out this writ of error.

The plaintiff in error made in this Court several assignments of error. Only the following was considered in the opinion.

"First: The district court erred in permitting Mrs. Sarah Bassett, the former legal wife of the plaintiff in error, against his objection, to testify to a confidential communication made to her by him while they were husband and wife, and not in the presence of any other person."

The Attorney General on the part of the government, contended that there was no competent bill of exceptions. The ground for this objection is stated in the opinion of the Court.

Page 137 U. S. 501

MR. JUSTICE BREWER delivered the opinion of the Court.

On November 23, 1886, the grand jury of the First Judicial District Court of Utah found an indictment for polygamy against the plaintiff in error, charging him with having married one Kate Smith on the 14th day of August, 1884, when his lawful wife, Sarah Ann Williams, was still living and undivorced. Upon trial before a jury a verdict of guilty was returned, and he was sentenced to imprisonment for a term of five years, and to pay a fine of $500. Such sentence, on appeal, was affirmed by the supreme court of the territory, and is now brought to this Court for review.

A preliminary question is presented by the Attorney General. It is urged that there was no proper bill of exceptions as to the proceedings in the trial court, and therefore nothing is presented which this Court can review. But we are reviewing the judgment of the supreme court of the territory, and the rule in this Court is not to consider questions other than those of jurisdiction, which were not presented to the court whose judgment we are asked to examine. Clark v. Fredericks,

Page 137 U. S. 502

105 U. S. 4. Beyond the fact that the proceedings of the trial court were examined and considered by the supreme court of the territory and are therefore presumably reviewable by this Court, is this matter, noticed by this Court in the case of Hopt v. Utah, 114 U. S. 488 -- that a large liberty of review is given by the statutes of Utah to the supreme court of the territory, even in the absence of a formal bill of exceptions. See also Stringfellow v. Cain, 99 U. S. 610; O'Reilly v. Campbell, 116 U. S. 418.

But it is unnecessary to rest upon this recognition by the supreme court of the territory or the presumptions arising therefrom. The record shows the pleadings, proceedings, and exceptions to the charge of the trial judge, all certified properly by T. A. Perkins, the clerk of the trial court. At the close of his certificate, which is of date January 20, 1887, is this statement:

"And I further certify that a copy of defendant's bill of exceptions in said cause is not made part hereof, because said bill of exceptions is in the possession of defendant's counsel at the City of Salt Lake, and because I am informed by said counsel that it has been stipulated by and between themselves and the United States District Attorney for Utah Territory that the original thereof in place of such copy should be used in the supreme court upon this appeal."

The bill of exceptions referred to by him in this statement is signed by the trial judge, and thus endorsed:

"No. 984. First Dist. Court, Utah. The United States vs. William E. Bassett. Polygamy. Bill of exceptions. Filed Jan'y 19th, 1887. T. A. Perkins, Clerk,"

and also by the clerk of the supreme court of the territory as "Filed Feb'y 2nd, 1887," the date of the filing of the transcript of the proceedings of the trial court. The import of all this is that the bill of exceptions signed by the trial judge was filed in the trial court, and that, for the purposes of economy, time, and convenience, such original bill, together with the record of the proceedings, was brought to and filed in the supreme court after having been filed in the trial court. It needs but this suggestion, that if a copy is good, the original is equally good. The identification of such bill of exceptions is perfect, vouched by the signatures

Page 137 U. S. 503

of the trial judge, the clerk of the district court, and the clerk of the supreme court. To ignore such authentication would place this Court in the attitude of resting on a mere technicality to avoid an inquiry into the substantial rights of a party, as considered and determined by both the trial court and the supreme court of the territory. In the absence of a statute or special rule of law compelling such a practice, we decline to adopt it.

Passing from this question of practice to the merits, the principal question, and the only one we deem necessary to consider, is this: the wife of the defendant was called as a witness for the prosecution, and permitted to testify as to confessions made by him to her in respect to the crime charged, and her testimony was the only direct evidence against him. This testimony was admitted under the first paragraph of section 1156 of the Code of Civil Procedure, enacted in 1884, section 3878 of the Compiled Laws of Utah 1888, which reads:

"A husband cannot be examined for or against his wife without her consent, nor a wife for or against her husband without his consent, nor can either, during the marriage or afterwards, be, without the consent of the other, examined as to any communication made by one to the other during the marriage, but this exception does not apply to a civil action or proceeding by one against the other, nor to a criminal action or proceeding for a crime committed by one against the other."

And the contention is that "polygamy" is within the language of that paragraph a crime committed by the husband against the wife. We think this ruling erroneous. A technical argument against it is this -- the section is found in the Code of Civil Procedure, and its provisions should not be held to determine the competency of witnesses in criminal cases, especially when there is a Code of Criminal Procedure, which contains sections prescribing the conditions of competency. Section 421 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, section 5197 of the Compiled Laws, 1888, is as follows:

"Except with the consent of both or in cases of criminal violence upon one by the other, neither husband nor wife are competent witnesses for or against each other in a criminal action or proceeding to

Page 137 U. S. 504

which one or both are parties."

Clearly, under that section, the wife was not a competent witness. It is true that the Code of Criminal Procedure was enacted in 1878 and the Code of Civil Procedure in 1884, so that the latter is the last expression of the legislative will, but a not unreasonable construction is that the last clause of this paragraph was inserted simply to prevent the rule stated in the first clause from being held to apply to the cases stated in the last, leaving the rule controlling in criminal cases to be determined by the already enacted section in the Code of Criminal Procedure. This construction finds support in the fact that the same legislature which enacted the Code of Civil Procedure passed an act amending various sections in the Code of Criminal Procedure, among them the section following section 421, quoted above, and did not in terms amend such section, Laws of Utah 1884, c. 48, p. 119, and in the further fact that the same legislature passed an act for criminal procedure in justices' courts, and in that prescribed the same rule of competency, and in the same language as is found in section 421, Laws of Utah, 1884, c. 54, section 100, p. 153. It can hardly be believed that the legislature would establish one rule of competency for a trial in a justice's court and a different rule for a trial of the same offense on an appeal to the district court. And there are many offenses of which justices' courts have jurisdiction, which are like polygamy in their social immorality and their wrong to the wife.

But we do not rest our conclusion on this technical argument. If there were but a single section in force, and that the one found in the Code of Civil Procedure, we should hold the testimony of the wife incompetent. We agree with the Supreme Court of California when, in speaking of their codes, which in respect to these sections are identical with those of Utah, it says, in People v. Langtree, 64 Cal. 259:

"We think upon a fair construction both mean the same thing, although the Penal Code is more explicit than the other. On this, as on nearly every other subject to which the codes relate, they are simply declaratory of what the law would be if there were no codes."

See also People v. Mullings, 83 Cal. 138.

Page 137 U. S. 505

It was a well known rule of the common law that neither husband nor wife was a competent witness in a criminal action against the other except in cases of personal violence, the one upon the other, in which the necessities of justice compelled a relaxation of the rule. We are aware that language similar to this has been presented to the supreme courts of several states for consideration. Some, as in Iowa and Nebraska, hold that a new rule is thereby established and that the wife is a competent witness against her husband in a criminal prosecution for bigamy or adultery, on the ground that those are crimes specially against her. State v. Sloan, 55 Ia. 217; Lord v. State, 17 Neb. 526, while others, as in Minnesota and Texas, hold that by these words no departure from the common law rule is intended. State v. Armstrong, 4 Minn. 251; Compton v. State, 13 Tex.App. 274; Overton v. State, 43 Tex. 616. This precise question has never been before this Court, but the common law rule has been noticed and commended in Stein v. Bowman, 13 Pet. 209, 38 U. S. 222, in which Mr. Justice McLean used this language:

"It is, however, admitted in all the cases that the wife is not competent, except in cases of violence upon her person, directly to criminate her husband, or to disclose that which she has learned from him in their confidential intercourse. . . . This rule is founded upon the deepest and soundest principles of our nature -- principles which have grown out of those domestic relations that constitute the basis of civil society and which are essential to the enjoyment of that confidence which should subsist between those who are connected by the nearest and dearest relations of life. To break down or impair the great principles which protect the sanctities of husband and wife would be to destroy the best solace of human existence."

We do not doubt the power of the legislature to change this ancient and well supported rule, but an intention to make such a change should not lightly be imputed. It cannot be assumed that it is indifferent to sacred things, or that it means to lower the holy relations of husband and wife to the material plane of simple contract. So, before any departure from the rule affirmed through the ages of the

Page 137 U. S. 506

common law -- a rule having its solid foundation in the best interests of society -- can be adjudged, the language declaring the legislative will should be so clear as to prevent doubt as to its intent and limit. When a code is adopted, the understanding is that such code is a declaration of established law, rather than an enactment of new and different rules. This is the idea of a code, except as to matters of procedure and jurisdiction which often ignore the past, and require affirmative description.

We conclude therefore that the section quoted from the Code of Civil Procedure, if applicable to a criminal case, should not be adjudged as working a departure from the old and established rule unless its language imperatively demands such construction. Does it? The clause in the Civil Code is negative, and declares that the exception of the incompetency of wife or husband as a witness against the other does not apply to a criminal action or proceeding for a crime committed by one against the other. Is polygamy such a crime against the wife? That it is no wrong upon her person is conceded, and the common law exception to the silence upon the lips of husband and wife was only broken, as we have noticed, in cases of assault of one upon the other. That it is humiliation and outrage to her is evident. If that is the test, what limit is imposed? Is the wife not humiliated, is not her respect and love for her husband outraged and betrayed, when he forgets his integrity as a man, and violates any human or divine enactment? Is she less sensitive, is she less humiliated, when he commits murder, or robbery, or forgery, than when he commits polygamy or adultery? A true wife feels keenly any wrong of her husband, and her loyalty and reverence are wounded and humiliated by such conduct. But the question presented by this statute is not how much she feels or suffers, but whether the crime is one against her. Polygamy and adultery may be crimes which involve disloyalty to the marital relation, but they are rather crimes against such relation than against the wife, and, as the statute speaks of crimes against her, it is simply an affirmation of the old, familiar, and just common law rule. We conclude,

Page 137 U. S. 507

therefore, that under this statute, the wife was an incompetent witness as against her husband.

Other questions in the record need not be considered, as they will probably not arise on a new trial.

The judgment of the supreme court of the Territory of Utah is reversed, and the case remanded, with instructions to order a new trial.