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decided: January 6, 1908.



Author: White

[ 207 U.S. Page 432]

 MR. JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the court.

This writ of error to review a criminal conviction is prosecuted directly from this court upon the assumption that rights under the Constitution are involved. The errors assigned, however, relate not only to such question but also to many other subjects. If there be a constitutional question adequate to the exercise of jurisdiction, the duty exists to review the whole case. Burton v. United States, 196 U.S. 283.

The constitutional question relied on thus arose:

On February 11, 1905, Williamson, plaintiff in error, while a member of the House of Representatives of the United States, was indicted with two other persons for alleged violations of Rev. Stat. ยง 5440, in conspiring to commit the crime of subornation of perjury in proceedings for the purchase of public land under the authority of the law commonly known as the Timber and Stone Act. The defendants were found guilty in the month of September, 1905. On October 14, 1905, when the court was about to pronounce sentence, Williamson -- whose term of office as a member of the House of Representatives did not expire until March 4, 1907 -- protested against the court passing sentence upon him, and especially to any sentence of imprisonment, on the ground that thereby

[ 207 U.S. Page 433]

     he would be deprived of his constitutional right to go to, attend at and return from the ensuing session of Congress. The objection was overruled and Williamson was sentenced to pay a fine and to imprisonment for ten months.Exceptions were taken both to the overruling of the preliminary objection and to the sentence of imprisonment. Upon these exceptions assignments of error are based, which it is asserted present a question as to the scope and meaning of that portion of Article I, section 6, clause 1, of the Constitution, relating to the privilege of Senators and Representatives from arrest during their attendance on the session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same.

At the threshold it is insisted by the Government that the writ of error should be dismissed for want of jurisdiction. This rests upon the proposition that the constitutional question urged is of such a frivolous character as not to furnish a basis for jurisdiction, or if not frivolous at the time when the sentence was imposed, it is now so. The first proposition assumes that it is so clear that the constitutional privilege does not extend to the trial and punishment during his term of office of a Congressman for crime that any assertion to the contrary affords no basis for jurisdiction. It is not asserted that it has ever been finally settled by this court that the constitutional privilege does not prohibit the arrest and punishment of a member of Congress for the commission of any criminal offense. The contention must rest therefore upon the assumption that the text of the Constitution so plainly excludes all criminal prosecutions from the privilege which that instrument accords a Congressman as to cause the contrary assertion to be frivolous. But this conflicts with Burton v. United States, supra, where, although the scope of the privilege was not passed upon, it was declared that a claim interposed by a Senator of the United States of immunity from arrest in consequence of a prosecution and conviction for a misdemeanor involved a constitutional question of such a character as to give jurisdiction to this court by direct writ

[ 207 U.S. Page 434]

     of error. It is said, however, that this case differs from the Burton case, because there the trial and conviction was had during a session of the Senate, while here, at the time of the trial, conviction and sentence Congress was not in session, and therefore to assert the protection of the constitutional provision is to reduce the claim "to the point of frivolousness." This, however, but assumes that, even if the constitutional privilege embraces the arrest and sentence of a member of Congress for a crime like the one here involved, it is frivolous to assert that the privilege could possibly apply to an arrest and sentence at any other time than during a session of Congress, even although the inevitable result of such arrest and sentence might be an imprisonment which would preclude the possibility of the member attending an approaching session. We cannot give our assent to the proposition.Indeed, we think, if it be conceded that the privilege which the Constitution creates extends to an arrest for any criminal offense, such privilege would embrace exemption from any exertion of power by way of arrest and prosecution for the commission of crime, the effect of which exertion of power would be to prevent a Congressman from attending a future as well as a pending session of Congress. The contention that although there may have been merit in the claim of privilege when asserted it is now frivolous because of a change in the situation, is based upon the fact that at this time the Congress of which the accused was a member has ceased to exist, and, therefore, even if the sentence was illegal when imposed, such illegality has been cured by the cessation of the constitutional privilege. But, even if the proposition be conceded, it affords no ground for dismissing the writ of error, since our jurisdiction depends upon the existence of a constitutional question at the time when the writ of error was sued out, and such jurisdiction, as we have previously said, carries with it the duty of reviewing any errors material to the determination of the validity of the conviction. It hence follows that, even if the constitutional question as asserted is now "a mere abstraction," that

[ 207 U.S. Page 435]

     fact would not avail to relieve us of the duty of reviewing the whole case, and hence disposing of the assignments of error which are addressed to other than the constitutional question. Besides, we do not consider the proposition well founded, for, if at the time the sentence was imposed it was illegal because in conflict with the constitutional privilege of the accused, we fail to perceive how the mere expiration of the term of Congress for which the member was elected has operated to render that valid which was void because repugnant to the Constitution.

We come, then, to consider the clause of the Constitution relied upon in order to determine whether the accused, because he was a member of Congress, was privileged from arrest and trial for the crime in question, or, upon conviction, was in any event privileged from sentence, which would prevent his attendance at an existing or approaching session of Congress.

The full text of the first clause of section 6, Article I, of the Constitution is this:

"SEC. 6. The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place."

If the words extending the privilege to all cases were unqualified, and therefore embraced the arrest of a member of Congress for the commission of any crime, we think, as we have previously said, they would not only include such an arrest as operated to prevent the member from going to and returning from a pending session, but would also extend to prohibiting a court during an interim of a session of Congress from imposing a sentence of imprisonment which would prevent him from attending a session of Congress in the future. But the question is not what would be the scope of the words

[ 207 U.S. Page 436]

     "all cases" if those words embraced all crimes, but is, what is the scope of the qualifying clause -- that is, the exception from the privilege of "treason, felony and breach of the peace." The conflicting contentions are substantially these: It is insisted by the plaintiff in error that the privilege applied because the offense in question is confessedly not technically the crime of treason or felony and is not embraced within the words "breach of the peace," as found in the exception, because "the phrase 'breach of the peace' means only actual breaches of the peace, offenses involving violence or public disturbance." This restricted meaning, it is said, is necessary in order to give effect to the whole of the excepting clause, since, if the words "breach of the peace" be broadly interpreted so as to cause them to embrace all crimes, then the words treason and felony will become superfluous. On the other hand, the Government insists that the words "breach of the peace" should not be narrowly construed, but should be held to embrace substantially all crimes, and therefore, as in effect, confining the parliamentary privilege exclusively to arrest in civil cases. And this is based not merely upon the ordinary acceptation of the meaning of the words, but upon the contention that the words "treason, felony and breach of the peace," as applied to parliamentary privilege, were commonly used in England prior to the Revolution and were there well understood as excluding from the parliamentary privilege all arrests and prosecutions for criminal offenses; in other words, as confining the privilege alone to arrests in civil cases, the deduction being that when the framers of the Constitution adopted the phrase in question they necessarily must be held to have intended that it should receive its well understood and accepted meaning. If the premise upon which this argument proceeds be well founded, we think there can be no doubt of the correctness of the conclusion based upon it. Before, therefore, coming to elucidate the text by the ordinary principles of interpretation we proceed to trace the origin of the phrase "treason, felony and breach of the peace," as applied to parliamentary privilege, and to fix the meaning

[ 207 U.S. Page 437]

     of those words as understood in this country and in England prior to and at the time of the adoption of the Constitution. In the Articles of Confederation (last clause of Article V) it was provided:

"Freedom of speech and debate in Congress shall not be impeached or questioned in ary court, or place out of Congress, and the members of Congress shall be protected in their persons from arrest and imprisonments, during the time of their going to and from, and attendance on Congress, except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace."

In article V of "Mr. Charles Pinckney's Draft of a Federal Government" it was provided as follows (Elliott's Deb., p. 146):

"In each house a majority shall constitute a quorum to do business. Freedom of speech and debate in the legislature shall not be impeached or questioned, in any place out of it; and the members of both houses shall, in all cases except for treason, felony, or breach of the peace, be free from arrest during their attendance on Congress, and in going to and returning from it. . . ."

The propositions offered to the convention by Mr. Pinckney with certain resolutions of the convention were submitted to a Committee of Detail for the purpose of reporting a constitution. Section 5 of Article VI of the draft of Constitution reported by this committee was as follows (Elliott's Debates, p. 227):

"SEC. 5. Freedom of speech and debate in the legislature shall not be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of the legislature; and the members of each house shall, in all cases, except reason, felony, and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at Congress, and in going to and returning from it."

The clause would seem not to have been the subject of debate. 3 Doc. Hist. of Constitution (Dept. of State, 1900), 500. In Elliott's Debates (p. 237) it is recited as follows:

"On the question to agree to the fifth section of the sixth article, as reported, it passed in the affirmative."

[ 207 U.S. Page 438]

     And, in the revised draft, the section was reported by the Committee of Revision exactly as it now appears (Elliott's Debates, p. 299).

The presence of the exact words of the exception as now found in the Constitution, in the Articles of Confederation, and the employment of the same words "treason, felony and breach of the peace," without discussion, in all the proceedings of the convention relating to the subject of the privileges of members of Congress, demonstrate that those words were then well known as applied to parliamentary privilege and had a general and well understood meaning, which it was intended that they should continue to have. This follows, because it is impossible to suppose that exactly like words without any change whatever would have been applied by all those engaged in dealing with the subject of legislative privilege, unless all had a knowledge of those words as applied to the question in hand and contemplated that they should continue to receive the meaning which it was understood they then had. A brief consideration of the subject of parliamentary privilege in England will, we think, show the source whence the expression "treason, felony and breach of the peace" was drawn, and leave no doubt that the words were used in England for the very purpose of excluding all crimes from the operation of the parliamentary privilege, and therefore to leave that privilege to apply only to prosecutions of a civil nature. We say this, although the King's Bench, in 1763 (Rex v. Wilkes, 2 Wils. 151), held that a member of Parliament was entitled to assert his privilege from arrest upon a charge of publishing a seditious libel, the court ruling that it was not a breach of the peace. But, as will hereafter appear, Parliament promptly disavowed any right to assert the privilege in such cases.

In Potter's Dwarris on Statutes, p. 601, reference is made to expressions of Lord Mansfield, advocating in 1770 the passage of a bill -- which ultimately became a law -- whose provisions greatly facilitated the prosecution of civil actions against members of Parliament, and restrained only arrests of their persons

[ 207 U.S. Page 439]

     in such actions. The remarks of Lord Mansfield having been made so shortly before the Revolution, and referring, as they undoubtedly did, to the decision in the Wilkes case (2 Wils. 151), are of special significance. Among other things he said:

"It may not be popular to take away any of the privileges of Parliament, for I very well remember, and many of your Lordships may remember, that not long ago the popular cry was for an extension of privileges, and so far did they carry it at that time that it was said that privilege protected members from criminal actions, and such was the power of popular prejudice over weak minds that the very decisions of some of the courts were tinctured with that doctrine. . . . The laws of this country allow no place or employment as a sanctuary for crime, and where I have the honor to sit as judge neither royal favor nor popular applause shall over protect the guilty. . . . Members of both houses should be free in their persons in cases of civil suits, for there may come a time when the safety and welfare of this whole empire may depend upon their attendance in Parliament. God forbid that I should advise any measure that would in future endanger the state. But this bill has no such tendency. It expressly secures the persons of members from arrest in all civil suits."

Blackstone, in 1765, discussing the subject of the privileges of Parliament, says (Lewis's ed., * 165):

"Neither can any member of either house be arrested and taken into custody, unless for some indictable offense, without a breach of the privilege of Parliament."

And, speaking of the writ of privilege which was employed to deliver the party out of custody when arrested in a ...

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