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In re Oliver

3-8-1948 Michigan:

In re Oliver

A Michigan circuit judge summarily sent the petitioner to jail for contempt of court. We must determine whether he was denied the procedural due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

In obedience to a subpoena the petitioner appeared as a witness before a Michigan circuit judge who was then conducting, in accordance with Michigan law, a "one-man grand jury" investigation into alleged gambling and official corruption. The investigation presumably took place in the judge's chambers, though that is not certain.

Two other circuit judges were present in an advisory capacity.1 A prosecutor may have been present. A stenographer was most likely there. The record does not show what other members, if any, of the judge's investigatorial staff participated in the proceedings. It is certain, however, that the public was excluded — the questioning was secret in accordance with the traditional grand jury method.

After petitioner had given certain testimony, the judge-grand jury, still in secret session, told petitioner that neither he nor his advisors believed petitioner's story — that it did not "jell." This belief of the judge-grand jury was not based entirely on what the petitioner had testified. As will later be seen, it rested in part on beliefs or suspicions of the judge-jury derived from the testimony of at least one other witness who had previously given evidence in secret. Petitioner had not been present when that witness testified and so far as appears was not even aware that he had testified. Based on its beliefs thus formed — that petitioner's story did not "jell" — the judge-grand jury immediately charged him with contempt, immediately convicted him, and immediately sentenced him to sixty days in jail. Under these circumstances of haste and secrecy, petitioner, of course, had no chance to enjoy the benefits of counsel, no chance to prepare his defense, and no opportunity either to cross-examine the other grand jury witness or to summon witnesses to refute the charge against him.

Three days later a lawyer filed on petitioner's behalf in the Michigan Supreme Court the petition for habeas corpus now under consideration. It alleged among other things that the petitioner's attorney had not been allowed to confer with him and that, to the best of the attorney's knowledge, the petitioner was not held in jail under any judgment, decree or execution, and was "not confined by virtue of any legal commitment directed to the sheriff as required by law." An order was then entered signed by the circuit judge that he had while "sitting as a One-Man Grand Jury" convicted the petitioner of contempt of court because petitioner had testified "evasively" and had given "contradictory answers" to questions. The order directed that petitioner "be confined in the County Jail . . . for a period of sixty (60) days or until such time as he . . . shall appear and answer the questions heretofore propounded to him by this Court. . . ."

The Supreme Court of Michigan, on grounds detailed in the companion case of In re Hartley, 317 Mich. 441, 27 N.W.2d 48,2 rejected petitioner's contention that the summary manner in which he had been sentenced to jail in the secrecy of the grand jury chamber had deprived him of his liberty without affording him the kind of notice, opportunity to defend himself, and trial which the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment requires.3 In re Oliver, 318 Mich. 7, 27 N.W.2d 323. We granted certiorari to consider these procedural due process questions.

... ... ...

It is "the law of the land" that no man's life, liberty or property be forfeited as a punishment until there has been a charge fairly made and fairly tried in a public tribunal. See Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 236-237. The petitioner was convicted without that kind of trial.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Michigan is reversed and the cause is remanded to it for disposition not inconsistent with this opinion. Case is reversed and remanded.

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