In re Clark (1821)

US Contract Law

re Clark
‘The Cotton Pickers’ by Winslow Homer

The coercion of specific performance can be compelling to most contractual arrangements, however, when the agreement is one based upon involuntary servitude, the law will not assist those seeking to enforce it, despite which guise is chosen. 

In 1821 a negro woman by the name of Mary Clark filed a writ of habeas corpus to the Knox Circuit Court, on grounds that she was being unlawfully detained under a written indenture dated 1816, and one deemed effective for a period of twenty years.

Having viewed the construction of the contract, the court held it sufficient enough to bind upon both parties,  upon which the woman appealed before the Supreme Court of Indiana, who reexamined the validity of the agreement within the context of its construction.

As was known at the time, indentures were typically drafted to observe compliance with prescribed rules of conduct between a master and his apprentice, which by definition was a relationship founded upon obedience through transferred parental authority or loco parentis.

However at the execution of this particular indenture, both parties were of sufficient maturity to rescind the agreement should it no longer serve mutual interests, and so it was claimed that the arrangement was not one voluntarily executed, but instead by way of enslavement.

With consideration of numerous forms of contracts, including dispositions of land, the court was moved to stress that inequality arising from any notion that the legal system would assist in the enforcement of an agreement designed to impute inferiority between one person and another, was both unconstitutional and inhumane in equal measure, and so in holding the contract void, the court reminded the parties that:

Deplorable indeed would be the state of society, if the obligee in every contract had a right to seize the person of the obligor, and force him to comply with his undertaking. In contracts for personal service, the exercise of such a right would be most alarming in its consequences….”

While discharging the appellant from her alleged contractual obligations on grounds that:

“[W]hen the law will not directly coerce a specific performance, it will not leave a party to exercise the law of the strong, and coerce it in his own behalf.”

Before reversing the circuit court judgment in full and awarding costs in favour of the appellant, and now lawfully free woman.

Baender v. Barnett (1921)

US Criminal Law

Baender v. Bennett
‘Five Dollar Gold Coin’ by Toby Mikle

Confession to a crime under federal statute leads to the incarceration of a felon, who later cites a constitutional violation when revoking his awareness of the act imprisoned for.

Having been found in possession of counterfeit coin dies, the petitioner acquiesced to the charge and was summarily indicted and sentenced under 18 U.S.C.A. § 487, which reads:

“Whoever, without lawful authority, possesses any such die, hub, or mold, or any part thereof, or permits the same to be used for or in aid of the counterfeiting of any such coins of the United States shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than fifteen years, or both.”

Later claiming a violation of the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the petitioner argued that the statute failed to acknowledge whether a charge of possession was established through conscious knowledge or by accidental means, a contention dismissed by the District Court of Northern California, who concluded:

“Such is the possession intended by the indictment, and such is the possession, the petitioner having pleaded guilty to the indictment, that he must be held to have had. Otherwise he was not guilty. He might have pleaded not guilty, and upon trial shown that he did not know the dies were in his possession.”

Appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court under writ of habeas corpus, the petitioner again cited that the statute was incriminating by effect, however, the Court referred to United States v. Kirby, in which it had stressed that:

“All laws should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always, therefore, be presumed that the Legislature intended exceptions to its language, which would avoid results of this character.”

While again in United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, the Court had later explained how:

“A statute must be construed, if fairly possible, so as to avoid, not only the conclusion that it is unconstitutional, but also grave doubts upon that score.”

Thus it was for these reasons that the Court held the previous decision as lawful, while reminding the petitioner that although the U.S. Constitution is designed to safeguard the needs and rights of its citizens, there was equal importance for Congress to enforce the punishment of those found possessing the means with which to duplicate, and thereby counterfeit, U.S. currency in all its forms.

Hutto v. Davis (1982)

US Criminal Law

Hutto v Davis
Image: ‘Smoke on the Water’ by Barbara St. Jean

Disproportionate sentencing for non-violent offences, while not surprising in a multi-jurisdictional continent, becomes central to the hierarchical fragility of a country built upon fairness and constitutional rights, when a convicted felon receives life imprisonment for drug related offences valued at less than $200 at the time of arrest.

In 1973, Virginia state police raided and recovered nine ounces of marijuana from the home of the defendant, prior to his conviction for possession with intent to distribute. When awarding judgment, the court passed a sentence of forty years imprisonment with a fine of $10,000, after which the defendant successfully appealed under habeas corpus, while contending that such an exorbitant term was in contravention to art.VIII of the US Constitution which reads:

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

And s.1 of art.XIV which reads:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Unfortunately, a US court of appeals panel reversed the decision on grounds that at no point in history had the Court been found liable for cruel and unusual punishment when sentencing under the guidance of state legislation, however when reheard in full judicial capacity, the court amended its earlier judgment back in favour of the appellant.

Through the application of Rummel v. Estelle, in which a Texan defendant had been unfairly sentenced to life imprisonment for fraudulent misrepresentation to the value of just under $121, the US Supreme Court ruled that despite the extremity of the sentences, there was nothing unconstitutional about the application of maximum penalty through approved legislative framework, and that on this occasion, when the lower courts had relied upon the four principles used in Hart v. Coiner:

  1. No element of violence and minimal, debatable danger to the person
  2. Examination of the purposes behind criminal statute and alternative mitigating remedies
  3. Evidence of excessive penalty beyond maximum recommendations
  4. Evidence of disproportionate sentencing through comparative state analysis

To allow the appeal, they had collectively failed to recognise that federal courts should be slow to review legislative sentencing mandates, and that tradition clearly showed how such instances were both rare and intrusive to the doctrine that amendments to statute were privy to Congress and not the courts. It was thus for these reasons that the US Supreme Court reversed the findings of the court of appeals, with explicit instruction to dismiss the habeas corpus, despite a majority dissent from within.