Ex Parte United States
Annotate this Case
242 U.S. 27 (1916)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Ex Parte United States, 242 U.S. 27 (1916)
Ex Parte United States
No. 11, Original
Argued January 10, 11, 1916
Decided December 4, 1916
242 U.S. 27
Mandamus, out of this Court, is a proper remedy for enforcing a criminal sentence where the district court which passed it has defeated its execution by an ultra vires order of suspension.
The proceeding should be directed to the district judge with a view to the annulment of the order of suspension, not to the clerk with a view to the issuance of a commitment in spite of it.
An accused person was duly sentenced in a district court of the United States pursuant to an act of Congress, and the court then immediately made an order that execution of the sentence be suspended "during the good behavior of the defendant," the effect of which, if sustained, would have been to exempt him permanently and absolutely from the punishment provided by the act and reflected in the sentence. Held that such a suspension -- the legal equivalent of an absolute and permanent refusal to impose any sentence under the statute -- was beyond the power of the court.
The Constitution assigns to the legislature the power to enact laws defining crimes and fixing the degree and method.of punishment, to the judiciary the power to try offenses under those laws and impose punishment within the limits and according to the methods therein provided, to the executive the power to relieve from the punishment so fixed by law and so judicially ascertained and imposed.
The power of Congress to fix punishment for crime includes the power, by probation or other suitable legislation, to equip the courts in advance with such latitude of discretion as will enable them to vary and control the application of punishment to suit the exigencies of each case, in accord with obvious considerations of humanity and public wellbeing;
But the courts, albeit under the Constitution they are possessed inherently of a judicial discretionary authority which is ample for the wise performance of their duties in the trying of offenses and imposing of penalties as the laws provide, have no inherent constitutional power to mitigate or avert those penalties by refusing to indict them in individual cases.
Semble that, at common law, while the courts exercised a discretion to suspend either imposition or execution of sentence temporarily for purposes and in ways consistent with the due enforcement of the penal laws, so as to facilitate action by the pardoning power and avoid miscarriages of justice, they neither possessed nor claimed the power of permanent refusal to enforce them.
In weight and reason, the decisions of the state courts deny the power of suspension here in question.
The order of suspension, being essentially unconstitutional, may not be sustained because it accords with a practice (of longstanding though intermittent and not universal) indulged for the highest motives by many federal judges in Ohio and elsewhere.
The hardships and wrongs resulting from this practice and its annulment address themselves to the pardoning power; the evils which the practice was designed to avoid may be remedied for the future by appropriate legislation.
Under the exceptional circumstances of the case, this Court, exercising its discretion, to the end that ample time may be afforded for executive clemency or such other action as the situation may require, directs that the writ of mandamus do not issue until the end of the term unless earlier requested by the United States.
Upon application of the government, presented by the Attorney General, a rule was made upon Honorable John M. Killits, Judge of the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Ohio, directing that he show cause why a writ of mandamus should not issue requiring him to set aside the order described in the opinion. The case was heard upon the government's
petition, the respondent's return, and the government's reply. The facts are stated in the opinion.