SPALDING V. NEW YORK, 45 U. S. 21 (1846)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Spalding v. New York, 45 U.S. 4 How. 21 21 (1846)

Spalding v. New York

45 U.S. (4 How.) 21



The facts were these.

The relator, Frederick F. Backus, previous to 20 July, 1840, had obtained a judgment in the supreme court of the State of New York against Lyman A. Spalding, the plaintiff in error, for the nonperformance of promises, and on the said last mentioned day the relator, as complainant, filed a creditor's bill against the said Spalding, in the court of chancery of said state, before the Vice-Chancellor of the Eighth Circuit, on which an injunction was issued and served on said Spalding, to restrain him, among other things, from collecting, receiving, transferring, selling, assigning, delivering, or in any way or manner using, controlling, interfering or meddling with, or disposing of, any property, money, or things in action belonging to him.

On 13 December, 1841, an order was made by said court to attach said Spalding for a violation of said injunction, and such proceedings were had in said court, that on 21 March, 1842, the said court declared and adjudged that the said Lyman A. Spalding had been and was guilty of a contempt of court in willfully violating said injunction by disposing of property and paying out money contrary to the terms of said injunction, and that such misconduct of the said Lyman A. Spalding was calculated to

Page 45 U. S. 22

and did impair, impede, and prejudice the rights and remedies of the complainant in the said cause, and it was ordered that he pay a fine for said contempt to the amount of $3,000, and the costs and expenses in relation to said contempt of $196.51, and that he be committed to the common jail of the County of Niagara until the fine, costs, and expenses are paid, and that a mittimus issue accordingly to the sheriff. And it was also ordered that the costs and expenses be paid to the solicitor of the relator, and the $3,000 be paid to the clerk of said court, subject to the further order of the court.

On 5 May, 1842, an alias mittimus was issued; on 7 May, the said Spalding was arrested, and continued under said arrest until 29 September, 1842.

On 11 April, 1842, the said Lyman A. Spalding presented his petition to be declared a bankrupt, pursuant to the Act of Congress entitled "An Act to establish a uniform System of Bankruptcy throughout the United States," passed August 19, 1841, ch. 9, and on 17 September, 1842, was duly and fully discharged under said act from all the debts owing by him at the time of presentation of his said petition to be declared a bankrupt, and received his certificate thereof, pursuant to said act.

Afterwards, on his application, he was brought before a supreme court commissioner of said state on habeas corpus, and claimed to be discharged from the mittimus on the ground of being discharged by his certificate from the fine, costs, and expenses. The relator, having been duly notified, appeared by counsel and opposed said discharge, but the commissioner, on the presentation of the said certificate, discharged said Spalding from the mittimus on 29 September aforesaid.

On 18 November after, the relator made application to the said vicechancellor for another mittimus to enforce the collection of said fine, costs, and expenses, and an order was entered that the said Spalding show cause before the vicechancellor why the same should not issue.

On the 28th of said month, the relator and Spalding appeared before said vice-chancellor; and the said Lyman A. Spalding presented his certificate in bankruptcy aforesaid, and claimed that by the said bankrupt act he was by said certificate discharged from all his debts, and from the said fine, costs, and expenses.

On 18 January, 1843, the said vice-chancellor ordered, adjudged, and decreed that a new mittimus issue, to commit he said Spalding to the common jail of the County of Niagara, until he pay the said fine, costs, and expenses, $196.51, to be paid to the solicitor of the relator, and the $3,000 be paid to the clerk of the court, subject to the further order of the court, and declared and decided that the discharge of the said Lyman A.

Page 45 U. S. 23

Spalding, under the bankrupt law, did not entitle him to be released from the payment of the said fine, costs, and expenses, nor from imprisonment for its collection.

From which decision and decree the said Spalding appealed to the chancellor of the said state, and the said chancellor, on 2 June, 1843, affirmed the decision and order or decree appealed from, and decided that the said defendant, Lyman A. Spalding, was not and could not be discharged from the said fine, costs, and expenses under the bankrupt act. 10 Paige 284.

And on appeal by the said Lyman A. Spalding to the Court for the Correction of Errors of the State of New York, the said court affirmed the said order or decree of the said chancellor, with costs and interest on the amount decreed to be paid, and decreed that the said Spalding was not by the bankrupt act discharged from the payment of the said fine, costs, and expenses.

The following is the opinion of the Court for the Correction of Errors, as pronounced by Chief Justice Nelson.

"The appellant, was adjudged guilty of a contempt of court for a willful violation of an injunction by the ViceChancellor of the Eighth Circuit on 21 March, 1842, and amerced, in the sum of $3,000, and costs and expenses of the proceeding, which were taxed at $196.51, with directions that he be committed to the jail of Niagara County until the same were paid."

"On or about 7 May, he was arrested for nonpayment of said fine, but succeeded in preventing an actual commitment into the custody of the jailer, by the use of the writ of habeas corpus, until he obtained his discharge under the bankrupt law, 17 September following, when he was soon after set at liberty on the production of said discharge, by Joseph Center, a commissioner to do the duties of a judge of the supreme court at chambers."

"On 18 November, the relator, upon full statement of the foregoing facts, applied to the vicechancellor for a recommitment on the ground that the discharge of the commissioner was without authority, and void, which, after hearing counteraffidavits and counsel for both parties, he adjudged accordingly and entered an order for said recommitment to close custody till the fine was paid."

"On appeal to the chancellor, this order was affirmed, and the question is now here on appeal to this court."

"Chief Justice Nelson. Upon the view I have taken of the case, the only question at all material to examine is, whether the fine inflicted upon the appellant for a willful violation of the injunction is a debt within the meaning of the bankrupt law, so that his discharge, granted under it, will operate to exonerate him from imprisonment. If not, then beyond all question the act of the commissioner in discharging the appellant from the mittimus was

Page 45 U. S. 24

without authority, and the order of the vice-chancellor directing a recommitment proper."

"By the 4th section of the Bankrupt Law, Laws Cong. 1841, p. 11, the certificate shall 'be deemed a full and complete discharge of all debts, contracts, and other engagements of such bankrupt which are provable under this act,'"


"The adjudication upon which the fine was imposed, is as follows:"

" The said Lyman A. Spalding has been and is guilty of a contempt of this court in willfully violating the said injunction, and by disposing of property and receiving and paying out money contrary to the terms of the said injunction; and that said misconduct of the said Lyman A. Spalding was calculated to, and actually did, impede and prejudice the rights and remedies of the complainant in the said cause."

"This act, for which the appellant has thus been adjudged guilty, is a criminal offense under the Revised Statutes (vol. 2, p. 577, § 14), and was before, at common law (4 Bl.Com. 129), for which he was liable to an indictment, and, on conviction, to fine and imprisonment."

"He might have been punished in this way, and subjected to a fine not exceeding $250, and imprisonment for one year. 2 Rev.Stat. 582, § 46, and p. 577, § 14."

"But this remedy by indictment for suppressing the mischief is oftentimes found too tardy for the exigency of the case, and hence the law has also authorized the more summary proceeding by attachment, as for a criminal contempt, whereby the offender is arraigned at once upon the charges, and the course of justice more promptly vindicated and sustained. As has been well remarked in reference to this subject, laws, without a competent authority to secure their administration from disobedience and contempt, would be vain and nugatory. A power, therefore, in the courts of justice to suppress such contempts by an immediate attachment of the offender results from the first principles of judicial establishments, and must be an inseparable attendant upon every superior tribunal."

"This summary mode of punishment is the one that has been resorted to in the instance before us, and upon a conviction, the propriety and justice of which is not in question, a fine of $3,000 and costs of proceedings has been imposed -- a penalty, as we have seen, for a strictly criminal offense, and inflicted under a strictly criminal proceeding."

"It appears to me, therefore, the very statement of the case is enough to show that there is no color for the ground taken, that the fine is a debt within the bankrupt law, any more than would exist in the case if it had been imposed after conviction, on an indictment for any other of the numerous minor offenses within the calendar of crimes."

"It is contended, however, that these proceedings, being under the

Page 45 U. S. 25

provisions in the Revised Statutes (vol. 2, p. 440, tit. 13) designed for the purpose of enforcing civil remedies, should, though in form criminal, be regarded simply as another remedy for collecting the debt claimed in the suit in the court of chancery, and upon which they have been founded; that the fine is, in point of fact, imposed for the purpose of being applied to the extinguishment of the debt whenever, in the progress of the suit, it shall have been established; that it is but incidental to the debt and dependent upon it, and a discharge of the one must necessarily discharge the other."

"The answer to all this is that several cases of strictly criminal contempts have been incorporated into the provisions of the statute under this head, 'of proceedings as for contempts, to enforce civil remedies,' &c., of which the case before us is one, for the purpose of authorizing the court to impose the fine, with a view to the actual loss or injury sustained by the party aggrieved, in consequence of the criminal act, and of applying the money in satisfaction of the same instead of imposing it for the benefit of the people."

"This is most manifest from a perusal of the several provisions. We find there the case of persons assuming to be officers, attorneys, solicitors, and counselors of the court, and acting as such without authority. Also for rescuing property from seizure, and persons from arrest; for unlawfully detaining a witness or party from court; and for any other unlawful interference with the process or proceedings in the action; the refusal of a witness to attend or to be sworn; the improper conduct of jurors, in conversing with a party to the suit, receiving communications from him, or from any other person, in relation to the merits; for disobedience to any lawful order, decree, or process of the court, &c. 2 Rev.Stat. 441, § 1, Sub. 3, 4, 5, 6."

"All these are, strictly, cases of criminal contempts, which have nothing to do with the collection of debts, or enforcement of civil remedies beyond the support and vindication of the general administration of the laws, and the following provisions of the statute, regulating the punishment to be inflicted, show the reasons for bringing them under this head. § 20, p. 443. If the court shall adjudge the defendant to have been guilty of the misconduct charged, and that such misconduct was calculated to, or actually did, defeat, impair, impede, or prejudice the rights or remedies of the party, it shall proceed to impose a fine, or to imprison, or both, as the nature of the case shall require. § 21. If an actual loss or injury shall have been produced by the misconduct alleged, a fine shall be imposed sufficient to indemnify the party, and to satisfy his costs and expenses, which shall be paid over on the order of the court, and the payment and acceptance of such fine shall be a bar to any action by the aggrieved party to recover damages for said injury. § 23. When such misconduct consists in the omission to perform some act or duty yet in the power

Page 45 U. S. 26

of the defendant to perform, he shall be imprisoned only until he shall have performed such act or duty, &c."

"Here, in cases confessedly criminal and indictable, and the penalties for which, ordinarily, would go for the benefit of the people, the courts are authorized to impose them, with a view to the indemnity of the party aggrieved, making, at the same time, his acceptance of the fine a bar to any private action for the injury."

"But the fine imposed is no less a penalty for a criminal act, and intended as a punishment for the same, than if inflicted for the benefit of the people. The imposition in the way prescribed by the statute accomplishes the double purpose of punishment for the misconduct, on the one hand, and indemnity to the aggrieved party, on the other."

"I am satisfied, therefore, that the discharge under the bankrupt law has no sort of application to the case, and that the order for the recommitment by the vicechancellor was proper and legal."

"It has been urged that whether the commissioner erred or not in discharging the appellant from the mittimus under the writ of habeas corpus, the vicechancellor had no authority to recommit; that the order discharging him should have been first reversed by certiorari before the second commitment. § 61, p. 473."

"This would be true if the commissioner had had jurisdiction over the subject matter, and had rendered only an erroneous judgment in the premises, but has no application where his proceeding is wholly without authority, and void, as in this case. 2 Rev.Stat. 470, § 42, Sub. 3, § 44. Cable v. Cooper, 15 Johns. 152. (A Copy.)"

"N. HILL, Jr., Reporter"

To review this judgment of the Court of Errors, the present writ of error was brought.

Page 45 U. S. 36

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TANEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Court has considered this case and has come to the conclusion that the judgment of the Court of the State of New York for the Correction of Errors must be affirmed. But there is some difference among the Justices who concur in affirming the judgment as to the principles upon which the affirmance ought to be placed. No further opinion will therefore be delivered than merely to pronounce the judgment of this Court(4 How.) Affirming the judgment rendered by the state court.


I dissent from the judgment of the Court.


I do not concur with the majority of the Court, and think that the judgment of the Court for the Trial of Impeachments and for the Correction of Errors should be reversed.

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