LOCATION: Eagle Coffee Shoppe
DOCKET NO.: 180
DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
CITATION: 366 US 761 (1961)
ARGUED: Feb 27, 1961
DECIDED: Jun 05, 1961
Facts of the case
Media for Payne v. Madigan
Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 27, 1961 in Payne v. Madigan
Harry Joseph Payne, Petitioner, versus Paul J. Madigan, Warden and number 184, Thomas E. Young versus United States.
Frederick M. Rowe:
Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court.
These two cases which have been consolidated for argument are here by writ of certiorari respectively to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
The petitioners in both of these cases are prisoners incarcerated in Alcatraz for whom counsel has been appointed by this Court.
One of the petitioners enjoys the dubious distinction as the Justice Department's brief points out with some evident relish of once having been in the list of the FBI's 10 most wanted men.
But the case and the issue presented by these cases rise beyond the faith of these two convicts and entails a broader issue and an important issue in the administration of criminal justice in the federal courts, a field over which this Court has traditionally exercised a supervisory jurisdiction to maintain and to improve the standards of procedure.
Basically as we shall go on to detail, the fundamental issue in both cases is whether a judge in pronouncing sentence in multiple criminal cases must impose sentence with dignity and clarity in open court so that a defendant of ordinary intelligence can learn from the sentencing pronouncement whether with respect to each charge, he must go to prison and if so for how long and when in relation to any other sentences that maybe simultaneously imposed.
Without resort to the written judgment or commitment form which is ordinarily prepared subsequently by the clerk and signed by the judge after the conclusion of the proceeding in open court.
As we will go on to detail, we feel that such a requirement that sentences be pronounced with such clarity in open court either essential not only to protect the defendant and to guarantee him the rights of procedural fairness, but also to maintain the dignity of the judicial procedure in imposing criminal sentences and to stem the rising tide of litigation in the federal courts involving challenges by petitioners who are in prison to obscure and rambling pronouncements of sentence by federal judges.
The facts in both of these cases are not complex.
In the first case, number 180, the petitioner Payne appeared in 1956 before the District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee to plead guilty, to set separate information and one indictment charging various violations of the postal laws over a period of several years in various courts of the United States.
He agreed to transfer of his sentence and waiver of trial in the jurisdiction in Tennessee where he pleaded guilty.
After the trial judge received these pleas of guilty, he proceeded to impose sentence.
Without quoting in lengthy detail from the sentencing pronouncement by the judge, suffice it to say that the sentencing pronouncement by the judge created as the Court of Appeals below put it some confusion at the time of the sentencing and indeed the Court of Appeals before rendering its decision below suggested that some administrative procedure be taken to render this sentence a “intelligible one.”
Nevertheless, there was some misunderstanding at the time of the imposition of sentence just whether the judge had in mind 12 years, counsel thought 13 years, the clerk at one time thought a different period of years, but most important at no time even though the judge used the word consecutive during his pronouncement, at no time did he specify or issue any direction in his oral pronouncement just when anyone of these multiple sentences were to be served by the defendant in relation to any of the other sentences which were simultaneously imposed by the judge.
Several years later, having commenced the service of the sentence in Alcatraz, the petitioner sued out a writ of habeas corpus challenging his continued detention as unlawful.
His claim was that in as much as the judge in pronouncing sentence in open court had failed to specify or direct the sequence of anyone of these sentences or their commencement date of service that by operation of law, all of these sentences must begin to run from the time of their imposition ie - need to run concurrently and since he had already served a term longer than the longest individual term of these multiple sentences, that his continued detention at that time became unlawful.
The District Court denied his claim to relief, stating that it felt that the intention of the district judge in pronouncing sentence was to commit him for 12 years, for a total of 12 years although the habeas corpus court did not address itself to the question at all as to one -- anyone of these sentences was to be served in relation to any of the others.
The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit whose decision is here on certiorari affirmed but on entirely different grounds.
The Court of Appeals in its opinion held that the sequence of service of multiple sentences was a matter of substance, which the sentencing judge must indicate.
However, since the sentencing judge in its pronouncement had not indicated expressly any sequence of these sentences or their commencement date in relation to each other, the Court of Appeals resorted to the written forms of judgment and commitment which were prepared, so far as this record indicates, after the close of the proceeding in open court and were subsequently signed by the judge.
These written forms of judgment and commitment which as a matter of fact were not in the original record of this case, but were requested by the Court of Appeals during oral argument and were then supplied by the U.S. Attorney were taken by the Court of Appeals to specify in effect the missing sequence of the sentences or the missing commencement dates which the oral pronouncement of the judge did not contain.
And the heart of the decision of the Court of Appeals below is contained in this brief excerpt from its opinion and I am reading from page 18 of the record in the Payne case, number 180.
“Whereas here, the consecutive sentences pertain to six information and an indictment, there is authority for the view that a more precise specification of the order of sentences must be indicated than is to be found in the instant oral sentences in providing that more precise specification of the order of sentences, the written judgments and commitments entered herein did not deport from the oral pronouncements.
At most, they resolved in ambiguity.
In the oral pronouncements, it was indicated that the sentences were to be served consecutively.
The manner in which the pronouncements were made indicates that a sequence of sentences corresponding to the numerical order of the cases was probably intended.
The written judgments and commitments signed by the judge in the same date confirmed this inference.
In our view, written judgments and commitments may properly serve the function of resolving ambiguities in orally pronounced sentences.”