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COOKE v. UNITED STATES

decided: April 13, 1925.

COOKE
v.
UNITED STATES



CERTIORARI TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Taft, Holmes, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Sanford

Author: Taft

[ 267 U.S. Page 532]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The first objection to the sentence of the court, made on behalf of the petitioner, is that the letter written to the judge is not a contempt of the court. Section 21 of the Judicial Code contains the following:

"Whenever a party to any action or proceeding, civil or criminal, shall make and file an affidavit that the judge before whom the action or proceeding is to be tried or heard has a personal bias or prejudice either against him or in favor of any opposite party to the suit, such judge shall proceed no further therein, but another judge shall be designated in the manner prescribed in the section last

[ 267 U.S. Page 533]

     preceding, or chosen in the manner prescribed in section twenty-three, to hear such matter. Every such affidavit shall state the facts and the reasons for the belief that such bias or prejudice exists, and shall be filed not less than ten days before the beginning of the term of the court, or good cause shall be shown for the failure to file it within such time. No party shall be entitled in any case to file more than one such affidavit; and no such affidavit shall be filed unless accompanied by a certificate of counsel of record that such affidavit and application are made in good faith."

It is said that all that the petitioner intended to do by this letter was to advise the court of the desire of his client to have another judge try the four cases yet to be heard, and of his own desire to avoid the necessity of filing an affidavit of bias under the above section in those cases by inducing the regular judge voluntarily to withdraw. Had the letter contained no more than this, we agree with the Circuit Court of Appeals that it would not have been improper.

But we also agree with that court that the letter as written did more than this. The letter was written the morning after the verdict in the heat of the petitioner's evident indignation at the judge's conduct of the case and the verdict. At least two weeks would elapse before it was necessary to file an affidavit of bias in the other cases.*fn1 The letter was written and delivered pending further necessary proceedings in the very case which aroused the writer's anger. While it was doubtless intended to notify the judge that he would not be allowed to sit in the other cases, its tenor shows that it was also written to gratify the writer's desire to characterize in severe language, personally

[ 267 U.S. Page 534]

     derogatory to the judge, his conduct of the pending case. Though the writer addressed the judge throughout as "Your Honor", this did not conceal but emphasized the personal reflection intended. The expression of disappointed hope that the judge was big enough and broad enough to overcome his personal prejudice against petitioner's client and that the client would have the privilege of rebutting the whispered slanders to which the judge had lent his ear, and the declaration that his confidence in the judge had been rudely shattered, were personally condemnatory and were calculated to stir the judge's resentment and anger. Considering the circumstances and the fact that the case was still before the judge, but without intending to foreclose the right of the petitioner to be heard with witnesses and argument on this issue when given an opportunity, we agree with the Circuit Court of Appeals that the letter was contemptuous.

But while we reach this conclusion, we are far from approving the course of the judge in the procedure, or absence of it, adopted by him in sentencing the petitioner. He treated the case as if the objectionable words had been uttered against him in open court.

To preserve order in the court room for the proper conduct of business, the court must act instantly to suppress disturbance or violence or physical obstruction or disrespect to the court when occurring in open court. There is no need of evidence or assistance of counsel before punishment, because the court has seen the offense. Such summary vindication of the court's dignity and authority is necessary. It has always been so in the courts of the common law and the punishment imposed is due process of law. Such a case had great consideration in the decision of ...


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