Having Mercy on the Supreme Court--Sort Of (II)
Bill Long 10/12/07
Some Other Parts of the Act of March 2, 1793
What happened, then, if under the more beneficent (to the Supreme Court Justices riding circuit) law, the District Court Judge and the US Supreme Court Justice disagreed with each other on the outcome of a case? Sec. 2 of the Act of March 2, 1793 addresses that issue:
"That if at any time only one judge of the supreme court, and the judge of the district court shall sit in a circuit court, and upon a final hearing of a cause, or of a plea to the jurisdiction of the court, they shall be divided in opinion, it shall be continued to the succeeding court; and if upon the second hearing when a different judge of the supreme court shall be present, a like division shall take place, the district judge adhering to his former opinion, judgment shall be rendered in conformity to the opinion of the presiding judge."
Now you see why my reference in the previous essay to the district judge as the presiding judge is important. It will be his opinion that will prevail if disagreements persist over two terms of the court in the same matter. The statute seems to assume that the Justice riding circuit in the subsequent session will be different from the one in the previous session because, by the language of the statute, it really doesn't deal with the case if the Circuit Justice is the same guy. Or, I suppose you could say that the language allows putting off the case to a third session in this instance, but that is stretching things..
Nuts and Bolts
Before looking at Sec. 3 of the Act of March 2, 1793, which will potentially take back some of the benefit provided to the Supreme Court, one comment is appropriate to "flesh out" the Act, to see how it worked. Take, for example, the trial of John Fries for treason in Pennsylvania at the end of the decade. This trial is very significant because the action of the Circuit Justice at one of Fries' trials (he had two), Samuel Chase, provided the first impeachment charge against him when he was tried by the US Senate in Feb. 1805. But that story is for later essays. Let's just look at the mechanics of the Fries case.
Fries led a rebellion against the Federal Property Tax Act in 1798, which had been passed to raise money for the prosecution of an undeclared war of the US against France. As a result of Fries' action, Judge Richard Peters of the Federal District Court of PA issued a warrant for his (and others') arrest. President Adams then got into the act, issuing a proclamation calling for the suppression of the "rebellion." Despite the fact that no shots were fired, Fries was charged with treason, a capital offense, and bound over for trial in Philadelphia. We see by this chart that the Philadelphia session of the Central Circuit Court would begin its session on April 11 of the year. Actually, his trial took place from April 30-May 9, 1799. But promptly on April 11, Justice Iredell, riding circuit, empaneled the grand jury and charged them on the law of treason. The grand jury returned on April 22 with an indictment for treason. The attorneys, who were probably preparing ahead of time, thus had a week to prepare for trial.
Interestingly enough, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who has written a book on impeachments, says that the US Supreme Court Justice sitting on the case was William Paterson (Grand Inquests, p. 61), while this online sources says James Iredell was the Circuit Justice. Actually, Justice Rehnquist is wrong. Though Fries was found guilty, he was granted a new trial because of possible bias against him of one of the jurors. His second trial took place also in Philadelphia, but because of the rigidities of circuit riding duties, was put off until April 24-25, 1800. Chase and Richard Peters were judges in the trial. Again, Fries was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death, but President Adams pardoned him before leaving office.
It is interesting to me to learn that the reason that Chase was impeached (but not convicted; there were eight charges against him in total) as a result of his conduct in the second Fries trial was that he made some judicial rulings considered not simply wrong but egregiously so. My purpose here is not to review the rightness of the rulings, but only to say that a plausible reason for Chase's peremptory attitude toward lawyers, his adoption of a definition of treason without consulting counsel, and his unwillingness to let them make arguments from precedent was that Chase needed to move the docket along. After all, in the Philadelphia sitting of the circuit court for 1800 were at least 100 civil cases alone (Rehnquist, p. 68). Chase knew that the 1799 trial of Fries, though important, took almost two whole weeks. You just can't run a docket like that, especially if you might be due in Dover on April 27 or Annapolis on May 7 or even Charlottesville on May 22. Thus, Chase had to move the docket along, so he thought--even though he technically wasn't the "presiding judge." He just couldn't afford the luxury of eight or nine days for one trial when 100 civil cases awaited him. And then, what do you do about the criminal cases?
So, this small vignette into a hugely important case shows us not only the working of the Judiciary Act of 1789 (the schedule) and the effect of the Act of March 2, 1793 (one Circuit Justice), but demonstrates the continued pressure on the Justices in 1800 because of the demands of circuit riding. Even though the Judiciary Act of 1801 had a strong political character to it, which I will detail soon, it needs to be understood as a response to real needs felt by the Circuit Justices in 1800.
Returning to the Act of March 2, 1793
Well, we have seen how this act "streamlines" the duties of the Circuit Justices. Only one is now required to show up for circuit court duties, even though the statute still allowed the Supreme Court to appoint two Justices if it desired. But then, look what Congress did in the next section of the Act:
"And be it further enacted, That the supreme court, or when the supreme court shall not be sitting (which was most of the time--my comment) any one of the justices thereof together with the judge of the district within which a special session is herafter authorized shall be holden, may direct special sessions of the circuit court to be holden for the trial of criminal causes, at any convenient place within the district, nearer to the place where the offense may be said to be committed, than the place or places, appointed by law for the ordinary sessions...(then follows technical details about the clerk's duties in setting up court)"
What do we have here? Well, there is the recognition that the criminal docket of the court may require additional sittings of the circuit court (I have not yet written on the criminal jurisdiction of the circuit court, nor do I know how many criminal cases the average circuit court disposed of, nor do I know whether they were in general disposed separately from the civil docket--so many things to know--right?). It doesn't say the reason behind this, but it may have to do with speedy trial provisions of the Constitution. And, the trial needed to take place near where the crime had been committed. What one hand giveth, the other taketh away.
I wonder if the Supreme Court Justices, who had just won a big victory in Congress by having their circuit riding duties trimmed a bit, would now roll their eyes because this provision potentially added to those duties. It is as if the statute said, 'Sure, you Justices, you don't have to ride circuit in twos. But, on the other hand, we give you the means of meeting yet again in the districts to conduct criminal trials.'
No wonder everyone was looking for a change in the system---possibly even a cessation of the circuit riding. Leave that to the Methodists...