United States Supreme Court
FISHER V. PACE, (1949)
Argued: Decided: February 7, 1949
Rehearing Denied March 7, 1949.
. [ Fisher v. Pace
Mr. R. Dean Moorhead, of Austin, Tex., for petitioner.
Mr. Quentin Keith, of Beaumont, Tex., for respondent.
Mr. Justice REED delivered the opinion of the Court.
While participating as counsel in the trial of a cause the petitioner, Joe J. Fisher, was adjudged guilty of contempt committed in the presence of the court by the District Court of Jasper County, Texas. The petitioner's client was the plaintiff in an action under the state Workmen's Compensation Law. Vernon's Ann.Civ.St.Tex. art. 8306 et seq. The case was being tried before a jury and the parties had stipulated as to the average weekly wage of the claimant and the rate of compensation per week. The only remaining questions to be determined were as to the extent and duration of the incapacity resulting from an injury to the claimant's foot. Seven special issues, designed to furnish an answer to these problems and limited to them, were submitted to the jury.
Thereafter petitioner began his opening argument to the jury during which the following occurrence took place, as shown by the trial court's order of contempt and commitment:
'Opening Argument to Jury of Plaintiff's Attorney, Joe J. Fisher
'Now, bear in mind, gentlemen, that this is what we call a specific injury. A general injury is an injury to the entire body. This is what is known as a specific injury, and it is confined to the left foot. We have specific injuries where you have injuries
to the eye, to your hand, and to your foot; this is an injury to the foot, to the left foot; and the law states the amount of maximum compensation which a person can receive for such an injury, that is, one hundred and twenty-five weeks. That is the most compensation Anderson Godfrey could receive, would be one hundred and twenty-five weeks, because his injury is confined to his left foot. That is all we are asking. Now, that means one hundred and twenty-five weeks times the average weekly compensation rate.
'By Mr. Cox: Your Honor please-
'By the Court: Wait a minute.
'By Mr. Cox: The jury is not concerned with the computation; it has only one series of issues. That is not before the jury.
'By the Court: That has all been agreed upon.
'By Mr. Fisher: I think it is material, Your Honor, to tell the jury what the average weekly compensation is of this claimant so they can tell where he is.
'By the Court: They are not interested in dollars and cents.
'By Mr. Fisher: They are interested to this extent-
'By the Court: Don't argue with me. Go ahead. I will give you your exception to it.
'By Mr. Fisher: Note our exception.
'By the Court: All right.
'(By Mr. Fisher:) This negro, as I stated, can onl recover one hundred and twenty-five weeks compensation, at whatever compensation the rate will figure under the law.
'By Mr. Cox: I am objecting to that discussion, Your Honor, as to what the plaintiff can recover.
'By the Court: Gentlemen! Mr. Fisher, you know the rule, and I have sustained his objection.
'By Mr. Fisher: I am asking-
'By the Court: Don't argue with me. Gentlemen, don't give any consideration to the statement of Mr. Fisher.
'By Mr. Fisher: Note our exception. I think I have a right to explain whether it is a specific injury or general injury.
'By the Court: I will declare a mistrial if you mess with me two minutes and a half, and fine you besides.
'By Mr. Fisher: That is all right. We take exception to the conduct of the Court.
'By the Court: That is all right; I will fine you $25.00.
'By Mr. Fisher: If that will give you any satisfaction.
'By the Court: That is $50.00; that is $25.00 more. Mr. Sheriff come get it. Pay the clerk $50.00.
'By Mr. Fisher: You mean for trying to represent my client?
'By the Court: No, sir; for contempt of Court. Don't argue with me.
'By Mr. Fisher: I am making no effort to commit contempt, but merely trying to represent the plaintiff and stating in the argument-
'By the Court: Don't tell me. Mr. Sheriff, take him out of the courtroom. Go on out of the courtroom. I fine you three days in jail.
'By Mr. Fisher: If that will give you any satisfaction; you know you have all the advantage by you being on the bench.
'By the Court: That will be a hundred dollar fine and three days in jail. Take him out.
'By Mr. Fisher: I demand a right to state my position before the audience.
'By the Court: Don't let him stand there. Take him out.'
The sheriff held the petitioner in custody upon the verbal order of the court until an amended order in conformity with Texas law,1 setting forth in full the above proceedings together with a formal commitment, was filed later the same day. Upon his application for a writ of habeas corpus from the Supreme Court of Texas to secure his release from the commitment, the judgment for contempt was upheld and the petitioner was denied any relief by that court and was remanded to the custody of the sheriff to undergo the punishment adjudged by the trial court. Ex parte Fisher, Tex. Sup., 206 S.W.2d 1000. As the application alleged a denial of due process of law under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, we granted certiorari to consider its application to this conviction for contempt.
. The claimed denial of due process consists of an alleged refusal to review the facts to ascertain whether a contempt was committed and in the alternative, if the facts were reviewed, due process was denied because no facts constituting contempt appear.
Historically and rationally the inherent power of courts to punish contempts in the face of the court without further proof of facts and without aid of jury is not open to question.
This attribute of courts is essential to preserve their authority and to prevent the administration of justice from falling into disrepute. Such
summary conviction and punishment accords due process of law.