RANDALL V. BRIGHAM, 74 U. S. 523 (1868)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Randall v. Brigham, 74 U.S. 7 Wall. 523 523 (1868)

Randall v. Brigham

74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 523


1. An action for damages does not lie against a judge of a court of general jurisdiction for removing, whilst bolding court, an attorney-at-law, from the bar for malpractice and misconduct in his office, the court being empowered by statute to remove attorneys for "any deceit, malpractice, or other gross misconduct," and having heard the attorney removed in explanation of his conduct in the transaction which was the subject of complaint. And such action will not lie against the judge even if the court, in making the removal, exceeds its jurisdiction, unless perhaps in the case where the act is done maliciously or corruptly.

2. All judicial officers are exempt from liability in a civil action for their judicial acts done within their jurisdiction, and judges of superior or general authority are exempt from such liability even when their judicial acts are in excess of their jurisdiction, unless perhaps where the acts in excess of their jurisdiction are done maliciously or corruptly.

3. Formal allegations making specific charges of malpractice or unprofessional conduct are not essential as a foundation for proceedings against attorneys. All that is requisite to their validity is that when not taken for matters occurring in open court in the presence of the judges, notice should be given to the attorney of the charges made and opportunity afforded him for explanation and defense. The manner in which the proceeding shall be conducted, so that it be without oppression or injustice is a matter of judicial regulation.

4. The construction given to a provision of the constitution of a state by the highest court of that state, not called in question by any conflicting decision of that court, is conclusive upon this Court.

This action was brought by the plaintiff, who was formerly an attorney and counselor-at-law in Massachusetts, chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 524

against the defendant, who was one of the justices of the superior court of that state, for an alleged wrongful removal by him of the plaintiff from the bar.

The substantial facts, as established by the evidence produced by the plaintiff and by the records of the state court, introduced by consent, upon which the removal was made were these:

In August, 1864, one Leighton was arrested upon a charge of larceny, and confined in jail in Boston to await the action of the grand jury in the superior court upon his failure to give a recognizance with sureties in four hundred dollars, required for his appearance. While thus confined, he retained the plaintiff as his attorney, to whom he expressed a willingness to enlist in the army or navy of the United States if the prosecution could be discontinued. The plaintiff thereupon proposed to the district attorney to dispose of the prosecution in this way. That officer declined to accede to the proposition at that time, but encouraged the plaintiff to expect that he would not object to such an arrangement in court if the presiding judge approved of it when the indictment was presented.

The plaintiff and his father, without any further arrangement with the district attorney, thereupon became sureties for Leighton, who, upon his release, proceeded to the office of the plaintiff and there signed with his mark -- he not being able to write -- an agreement to enlist as a substitute for one Brown, of Lowell, for four hundred dollars, which sum was to be retained by the plaintiff, without any subsequent claim upon him, as indemnity for his becoming surety on the recognizance, and also to pay the plaintiff four hundred dollars for furnishing bail.

Leighton subsequently enlisted in the naval service as a substitute for Brown, who paid the plaintiff, for the enlistment, eight hundred and thirty dollars. Of this sum, the plaintiff gave Leighton, when the latter went on board the vessel to which he was assigned, the sum of ten dollars. Subsequently he paid one hundred dollars to Leighton's order. The balance he retained. chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 525

Some weeks afterwards, Leighton wrote a letter to the captain of his vessel stating that he was promised four hundred dollars for his enlistment by his lawyer, the plaintiff, that he had only received ten dollars, and that when he applied to the plaintiff for settlement, evasive answers were all he obtained. He referred in the letter to the fact that he had a wife and two children dependent upon him for support, and he appealed to the captain to see that justice was done him. This letter was shown to the plaintiff, who replied that he had paid Leighton all he had agreed to, and should not pay him another cent. The wife of Leighton also applied to the plaintiff for a portion of the bounty of her husband in his hands, stating that the destitution of herself and children was such that she should be obliged to give them up to the city, to whom he replied by advising her to do so, and gave her nothing.

The captain then sent the letter to the grand jury of the county, at the time sitting upon Leighton's case. The jury, of course, could not act upon the letter, and its foreman requested the prosecuting officer to bring it before the court. This was accordingly done, the defendant being at the time the presiding justice. The plaintiff was thereupon sent for, and, in open court, his attention was called to the letter, and it was notified to him that on the following Wednesday, then five days distant, his professional conduct and standing at the bar would be considered.

At the time designated, he appeared and showed that, after his citation, he had paid to Leighton the balance of the four hundred dollars which Leighton claimed he was entitled to receive. This right of Leighton was never admitted until after the attention of the court had been directed to the matter.

The court being of opinion that the plaintiff took advantage of the situation of Leighton and obtained from him an agreement, which, under the circumstances, was unconscionable and extortionate and therefore grossly unprofessional; that he had induced Leighton to enlist by making him believe that his release from the prosecution would be accomplished chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 526

by his enlistment, and that the money obtained by the enlistment subsequently paid to Leighton was paid only in consequence of the inquiry instituted into the professional conduct of the plaintiff, he having previously denied that he was bound to pay anything, found that he had violated his oath of office as an attorney-at-law, and was guilty of malpractice and gross misconduct in his office, and consequently ordered that he be removed from his office as an attorney-at-law within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Thereupon, the plaintiff brought this suit. The declaration charged the removal to have been made without lawful authority and wantonly, arbitrarily, and oppressively.

Upon the evidence produced, the court below instructed the jury that the action could not be maintained and that their verdict should be for the defendant. Such verdict was accordingly rendered, and the plaintiff brought the case here.

The general statutes of Massachusetts [Footnote 1] provide that "an attorney may be removed by the Supreme Judicial Court or superior court for any deceit, malpractice, or other gross misconduct," and also that "a person admitted in any court may practice in every other court in the state, and there shall be no distinction of counselors and attorneys."

The oath required of attorneys on their admission is as follows:

"You solemnly swear that you will do no falsehood, nor consent to the doing of any in court; you will not wittingly or willingly promote or sue any false, groundless, or unlawful suit, nor give aid or consent to the same; you will delay no man for lucre or malice; but you will conduct yourself in the office of an attorney, within the courts, according to the best of your knowledge and discretion, and with all good fidelity as well to the courts as your clients. So help you God."

The superior court of Massachusetts is a court of general jurisdiction. Indeed, its jurisdiction is the most general of any court in Massachusetts. [Footnote 2] chanrobles.com-red

Page 74 U. S. 535