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January 18, 1915



White, McKenna, Holmes, Day, Hughes, Van Devanter, Lamar, Pitney, McReynolds

Author: White

[ 236 U.S. Page 43]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WHITE delivered the opinion of the court.

Prosecuting a writ of error in this case allowed by a circuit judge, the plaintiff in error asks to be permitted to docket the cause and conduct the proceedings in forma

[ 236 U.S. Page 44]

     of poverty is untrue, or if said court be satisfied that the alleged cause of action is frivolous or malicious." The fifth and last section points out the manner of entering judgment concerning costs in cases under the statute.

Prior to the amendment of 1910 on the face of the statute three things were certain: (a) that the statute imposed no imperative duty to grant a request to proceed as a poor person but merely conferred authority to do so when the fact of poverty was established and the case was found not to be frivolous, that is, was considered to be sufficiently meritorious to justify the allowance of the request; (b) that there was no power to grant such a request when made by a defendant; and (c) that there was also no authority to allow a party to proceed as a poor person in appellate proceedings in this court or the circuit courts of appeals. Bradford v. Southern Railway, 195 U.S. 243. Clarifying the first section as amended by these considerations, it becomes clear that the sole change operated by the amendment was to bring defendants within the statute and to extend its provisions so as to embrace, first, proceedings on application for the allowance of a writ of error or appeal to this court and the Circuit Court of Appeals, and second, the appellate proceedings in such courts. This being true, it is clear that as to the new subjects, the allowance of the right in those cases was made to depend upon the exercise of the same discretion as to the meritorious character of the cause to the same extent provided under the statute before amendment. That is to say, there is no ground for a contention that at one and the same time the statute brought certain proceedings within its scope and yet exempted them from its operation. Indeed this conclusion is not alone sustained by the implication resulting from the fact that the safeguards provided for the exercise of the authority found in the statute as originally enacted were not changed by the amendment, but further plainly results from the express provisions of the amended section

[ 236 U.S. Page 46]

     manifesting the purpose to subject the granting of the right in both the new instances provided for, to the exercise of the judicial discretion to determine the poverty and good faith of the applicant and the meritorious character of the cause in which the relief was asked.

Under the assumption that the affidavit as to poverty is sufficient we come to the merits, in other respects, of the application. There is a failure, however, to comply with the requirement that a statement be made briefly setting forth the cause of action relied upon since the petition only refers to an assignment of errors which it is said will be found in the written transcript which it is proposed to docket when the request the petitioner makes is allowed. As this is the first case coming to our attention under the amended statute and the omission was probably inadvertent, without making a precedent for future cases we consider the case for the purpose of determining whether it is of such a character as to justify the allowance of the relief prayed.

On October 14, 1909, Robert D. Kinney, the petitioner, caused a writ of attachment to issue against the defendant to recover damages in the amount of $18,309.84. This writ was made returnable before the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Massachusetts on the first Monday of December following, that is to say, on December 6, 1909. On October 26, service was made of the writ together with a declaration concerning the claim for damages. Before the return day (December 6, 1909), Kinney left with the clerk the writ and the declaration along with an order directing the clerk to enter the action and his appearance therein. The return day stated in the writ having expired, and the defendant not having entered its appearance, Kinney on December 20, 1909, instructed the clerk to enter a default against the defendant and some days thereafter, that is, on December 27, 1909, he sent to the clerk a written motion for entry of judgment with

[ 236 U.S. Page 47]

     directions to assess the plaintiff's damages at $19,026.98 as per an enclosed statement. The clerk declined to comply on the ground that the writ was made returnable on a day other than the first day of some statutory term of the court as required by the rules. When the first day of the next term arrived, that is, February 23, 1910, the clerk caused the case to be ...

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