Harris v. Nelson

LOCATION: United States District Court for the District of Columbia

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1967-1969)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 394 US 286 (1969)
ARGUED: Dec 09, 1968
DECIDED: Mar 24, 1969

Facts of the case


Media for Harris v. Nelson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 09, 1968 in Harris v. Nelson

Earl Warren:

Number 199, George B. Harris, Judge of United States District Court for the Northern District of California, petitioner, versus Louis S. Nelson, Warden.

Mr. Pottinger.

J. Stanley Pottinger:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This case presents the question of whether or not a District Court has the power or the authority to order the use of discovery interrogatories in a habeas corpus proceeding.

This particular question stems from a habeas corpus proceeding below, instituted by the petitioner, Mr. Alfred Walker.

Mr. Walker was arrested and his premises were searched on the basis, and solely on the basis, of information supplied to the Oakland police officers by an informant, a lady named Ms. Frances Jenkins.

The record indicated, however, so serious a question as to the reliability of the informant which is a sole basis which could sustain -- constitutionally sustain probable cause.

The Chief Judge Harris ordered counsel to be appointed in an evidentiary hearing in this sole question to be held.

Shortly prior to the evidentiary hearing, petitioner Walker propounded a short set of interrogatories to the respondent inquiring into the possible record that would either establish her reliability or unreliability on the part of the informant.

The respondent objected to these interrogatories not on the ground that they were inappropriate, but on the ground that the District Court had no authority for permitting their use in a habeas corpus proceeding.

The matter was argued and Chief Judge Harris ordered answers to the interrogatories.

The respondent immediately sought leave to file a petition for mandamus or prohibition in the Ninth Circuit, and such leave was granted, thereby, postponing the evidentiary hearing.

The matter then was briefed and argued in the Ninth Circuit and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did, in fact, enter an order vacating the Chief Judge Harris' order.

Petitioner Harris then petitioned for writ of certiorari in the cases now before you on a writ which issued to the Ninth Circuit.

In considering any applicability of discovery procedures to habeas corpus, I think it's essential to bear in mind one indisputable premise, and that is that the constitutional and historic validity of the writ of habeas corpus today depends, on a large part, upon the District Court's ability to fulfill its duty to inquire into disputed issues of fact.

As this Court stated in the landmark case of Townsend against Sain, the determinations of fact issues and habeas proceedings today is the typical and not the rare case.

By giving this duty, the question arises in this case and in other habeas proceedings as to what rules, what guidelines, and what procedures a District Court could look to in order to fulfill this fact finding task.

We have suggested two basic guidelines, two basic areas, two grounds which the Court might look to.

The first is the application of suitable or appropriate federal rules of civil procedure and the second is an application of appropriate procedures pursuant to the Court's inherent power.

I should first like to discuss the applicability of the federal rules of civil procedure since we believe that the controlling rule, that is Rule 81 (a) (2), support such an application and because we believe that an application of appropriate rules is preferable and clearly preferable to a use of procedures pursuant to the Court's inherent power.

Abe Fortas:

May I ask you whether there's any indication on the record here as to which theory the District Court used in ordering that the interrogatories be answered?

J. Stanley Pottinger:

No, there is not, Mr. Justice Fortas.

Abe Fortas:

You don't know as we --

J. Stanley Pottinger:

No --

Abe Fortas:

In this case, whether that the Court felt compelled to do so by the rules or whether the Court was acting as a matter discretionary power?

J. Stanley Pottinger:

No, there is no indication whatsoever.

All that we can surmise from the record is that the interrogatories were initially propounded pursuant to federal rules.

However, at the argument on this matter, the Court did not make a ruling on the federal rules.

The Court did take the matter under submission rather than ruling from the bench, and when the order of the Court was entered, it deleted any reference to the federal rules.

The order simply states that interrogatories are to be answered, and it did not say pursuant to the federal rules or pursuant to inherent power.