Proceedings of the Trial of Susan B. Anthony: Judge Hunt, and The Right of Trial by Jury.

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Judge Hunt, and The Right of Trial by Jury.

By JOHN HOOKER, Hartford, Conn.

The following article was intended for publication in a magazine, but the writer kindly contributed it for publication in this pamphlet.

In the recent trial of Susan B. Anthony for voting, (illegally, as was claimed, on the ground that as a woman she had no right to vote-a point which we do not propose to consider,) the course of Judge Hunt, in taking the case from the jury, and ordering a verdict of guilty to be entered up, was so remarkable, so contrary to all rules of law, and so subversive of the system of jury trials in criminal cases, that it should not be allowed to pass without an emphatic protest on the part of every public journal that values our liberties.

Let us first of all see precisely what were the facts. Miss Anthony was charged with having knowingly voted, without lawful right to vote, at the Congressional election in the eighth ward of the City of Rochester, in the State of New York, in November, 1872. The Act of Congress under which the prosecution was brought provides that, “If, at any election for representative or delegate in the Congress of the United States, any person shall knowingly personate and vote, or attempt to vote, in the name of any other person, whether living, dead or fictitious, or vote more than once at the same election for any candidate for the same office, or vote at a place where he may not be lawfully entitled to vote, or vote without having a lawful right to vote, every such person shall be deemed guilty of a crime,“ &c.

The trial took place at Canandaigua, in the State of New York, in the Circuit Court of the United States, before Judge Hunt, of the Supreme Court of the United States.

The defendant pleaded not guilty-thus putting the Government upon the proof of their entire case, admitting, however, that she was a woman, but admitting nothing more.

The only evidence that she voted at all, and that, if at all, she voted for a representative in Congress, offered on the part of the government, was, that she handed four bits of paper, folded in the form of ballots, to the inspectors, to be placed in the voting boxes. There was nothing on the outside of these papers to indicate what they were, and the contents were not known to the witnesses nor to the inspectors. There were six ballot boxes, and each elector had the right to cast six ballots.

This evidence would undoubtedly warrant the conclusion that Miss Anthony voted for a Congressional representative, the fact probably appearing, although the papers before the writer do not show it, that one of the supposed ballots was placed by her direction in the box for votes for Members of Congress. The facts are thus minutely stated, not at all for the purpose of questioning their sufficiency, but to show how entirely it was question of fact, and therefore a question for the jury.

Upon this evidence Judge Hunt directed the clerk to enter up a verdict of guilty. The counsel for the defendant interposed, but without effect, the judge closing the discussion by saying, “Take the verdict, Mr. Clerk.“ The clerk then said, “Gentlemen of the jury, hearken to your verdict, as the Court has recorded it. You say you find the defendant guilty of the offence whereof she stands indicted, and so say you all.“ To this the jury made no response, and were immediately after dismissed.

It is stated in one of the public papers, by a person present at the trial, that immediately after the dismissal of the jury, one of the jurors said to him that that was not his verdict, nor that of the rest, and that if he could have spoken he should have answered “Not guilty,“ and that other jurors would have sustained him in it. The writer has no authority for this statement, beyond the letter mentioned. The juror, of course, had a right, when the verdict was read by the clerk, to declare that it was not his verdict, but it is not strange, perhaps, that an ordinary juror, with no time to consider, or to consult with his fellows, and probably ignorant of his right, and in awe of the Court, should have failed to assert himself at such a moment.

Probably the assumption by the judge that Miss Anthony in fact voted, did her no real injustice, as it was a notorious fact that she did vote, and claimed the right to do so. But all this made it no less an usurpation for the judge to take the case from the jury, and order a verdict of guilty to be entered up without consulting them.

There was, however, a real injustice done her by the course of the judge, inasmuch as the mere fact of her voting, and voting unlawfully, was not enough for her conviction. It is a perfectly settled rule of law that there must exist an intention to do an illegal act, to make an act a crime. It is, of course, not necessary that a person perpetrating a crime should have an actual knowledge of a certain law which forbids the act, but he must have a criminal intent. Thus, if one is charged with theft, and admit the taking of the property, which is clearly proved to have belonged to another, it is yet a good defence that he really believed that he had a right to take it, or that he took it by mistake. Just so in case where, as sometimes occurs, the laws regulating the right to vote in a State are of doubtful meaning, and a voter is uncertain whether he has a right to vote in one town or another, and, upon taking advice from good counsel, honestly makes up his mind that he has a right to vote in the town of A. In this belief he applies to the registrars of that town, who upon the statement of the facts, are of the opinion that he has a right to vote there, and place his name upon the list, and on election day he votes there without objection. Now, if he should be prosecuted for illegal voting, it would not be enough that he acknowledged the fact of voting, and that the judge was of the opinion that his view of the law was wrong. There would remain another and most vital question in the case, and that is, did he intend to vote unlawfully? Now, precisely the wrong that would be done to the voter in the case we are supposing, by the judge ordering a verdict of guilty to be entered up, was done by that course in Miss Anthony's case. She thoroughly believed that she had a right to vote. In addition to this she had consulted one of the ablest lawyers in Western New York, who gave it as his opinion that she had a right to vote, and who testified on the trial that he had given her that advice. The Act of Congress upon which the prosecution was founded uses the term “knowingly,“-“shall knowingly vote or attempt to vote in the name of any other person, or more than once at the same election for any candidate for the same office, or vote at a place where he may not be lawfully entitled to vote, or without having a lawful right to vote.“ Here most manifestly the term “knowingly“ does not apply to the mere act of voting. It is hardly possible that a man should vote, and not know the fact that he is voting. The statute will bear no possible construction but that which makes the term “knowingly“ apply to the illegality of the act. Thus, “shall knowingly vote without having a lawful right to vote,“ can only mean, shall vote knowing that there is no lawful right to vote. This being so, there was manifestly a most vital question beyond that of the fact of voting, and of the conclusion of the judge that the voting was illegal, viz., did Miss Anthony vote, knowing that she had no right to vote.

Now, many people will say that Miss Anthony ought to have known that she had no right to vote, and will perhaps regard it as an audacious attempt for mere effect, to assert a right that she might think she ought to have, but could not really have believed that she had. But whatever degree of credit her claim to have acted honestly in the matter is entitled to, whether to much, or little, or none, it was entirely a question for the jury, and they alone could pass upon it. The judge had no right even to express an opinion on the subject to the jury, much less to instruct them upon it, and least of all to order a verdict of guilty without consulting them.

There seems to have been an impression, as the writer infers from various notices of the matter in the public papers, that the case had resolved itself into a pure question of law. Thus, a legal correspondent of one of our leading religious papers, in defending the course of Judge Hunt, says: “There was nothing before the Court but a pure question of law. Miss Anthony violated the law of the State intentionally and deliberately, as she openly avowed, and when brought to trial her only defence was that the law was unconstitutional. Here was nothing whatever to go to the jury.“ And again he says: “In jury trials all questions of law are decided by the judge.“ This writer is referred to only as expressing what are supposed to be the views of many others.

To show, however, how entirely incorrect in this assumption of fact, I insert here the written points submitted by Miss Anthony's counsel to the Court, for its instruction to the jury.

First-That if the defendant, at the time of voting, believed that she had a right to vote, and voted in good faith in that belief, she is not guilty of the offence charged.

Second-In determining the question whether she did or did not believe that she had a right to vote, the jury may take into consideration, as bearing upon that question, the advice which she received from the counsel to whom she applied.

Third-That they may also take into consideration, as bearing upon the same question, the fact that the inspectors considered the question, and came to the conclusion that she had a right to vote.

Fourth-That the jury have a right to find a general verdict of guilty or not guilty, as they shall believe that she has or has not been guilty of the offense prescribed in the statute.

This certainly makes it clear that the question was not “a pure question of law,“ and that there was “something to go to the jury.“ And this would be so, even if, as that writer erroneously supposes, Miss Anthony had openly avowed before the Court that she voted.

But even if this point be wholly laid out of the case, and it had been conceded that Miss Anthony had knowingly violated the law, if she should be proved to have voted at all, so that the only questions before the Court were, first-whether she had voted as charged, and secondly-whether the law forbade her voting; and if in this state of the case a hundred witnesses had been brought by the government, to testify that she had “openly avowed“ in their presence that she had voted, so that practically the question of her having voted was proved beyond all possible question, still, the judge would have no right to order a verdict of guilty. The proof that she voted would still be evidence, and mere evidence, and a judge has no power whatever to deal with evidence. He can deal only with the law on the case, and the jury alone can deal with the facts.

But we will go further that this. We will suppose that in New York, as in some of the States, a defendant in a criminal case is allowed to testify, and that Miss Anthony had gone upon the stand as a witness, and had stated distinctly and unequivocally that she did in fact vote as charged. We must not forget that, if this had actually occurred, she would at the same time have stated that she voted in the full belief that she had a right to vote, and that she was advised by eminent counsel that she had such right; a state of the case which we have before referred to as presenting a vital question of fact for the jury, and which excludes the possibility of the case being legally dealt with by the judge alone; but this point we are laying out of the case in the view we are now taking of it. We will suppose that Miss Anthony not only testified that she voted in fact, but also that she had no belief that she had any right to vote; making a case where, if the Court should hold as matter of law that she had no right to vote, there would seem to be no possible verdict for the jury to bring in but that of “guilty.“

Even in this case, which would seem to resolve itself as much as possible into a mere question of law, there is yet no power whatever on the part of the judge to order a verdict of guilty, but it rests entirely in the judgment and conscience of the jury what verdict they will bring in. They may act unwisely and unconscientiously, perhaps by mere favoritism, or a weak sympathy, or prejudice, or on any other indefensible ground, but yet they have entire power over the matter. It is for them finally to say what their verdict shall be, and the judge has no power beyond that of instruction upon the law involved in the case.

The proposition laid down by the writer before referred to, that “in jury trials all questions of law are decided by the judge,“ is not unqualified true. It is so in civil causes, but in criminal causes it has been holden by many of our best courts that the jury are judges of the law as well as of the facts. Pages could be filled with authorities is support of this proposition. The courts do hold, however, that the judges are to instruct the jury as to the law, and that it is their duty to take the law as thus laid down. But it has never been held that if the jury assume the responsibility of holding a prisoner not guilty in the face of a charge from the judge that required a verdict of guilty, where the question was wholly one of law, they had not full power to do it.

The question is one ordinarily of little practical importance, but it here helps to make clear the very point we are discussing. Here the judge laid down the law, correctly, we will suppose, certainly in terms that left the jury no doubt as to what he meant; and here, by all the authorities, the jury ought, as a matter of proper deference in one view, or of absolute duty in the other, to have adopted the view of the law given them by the judge. But it was in either case the jury only who could apply the law to the case. The judge could instruct, but the jury only could apply the instruction. That is, the instruction of the judge, no matter how authoritative we may regard it, could find its way to the defendant only through the verdict of the jury.

It is only where the confession of the facts is matter of record, (that is, where the plea filed or recorded in the case admits them), that the judge can enter up a judgment without the finding of a jury. Thus, if the defendant pleads “guilty,“ there is no need of a jury finding him so. If, however, he pleads “not guilty,“ then, no matter how overwhelming is the testimony against him on the trial, no matter if a hundred witnesses prove his admission of all the facts, the whole is not legally decisive like a plea of guilty; but the question still remains a question of fact, and the jury alone can determine what the verdict shall be. In other words, it is no less a question of fact for the reason that the evidence is all one way and overwhelming, or that the defendant has in his testimony admitted all the facts against himself.

The writer has intended this article for general rather than professional readers, and has therefore not encumbered it with authorities; but he has stated only rules and principles that are well established and familiar to all persons practising in our courts of law.

This case illustrates an important defect in the law with regard to the revision of verdicts and judgments in the United States Circuit Court. In almost all other courts, an application for a new trial on the ground of erroneous rulings by the judge, is made to a higher and independent tribunal. In this court, however, an application for a new trial is addressed to and decided by the same judge who tried the case, and whose erroneous rulings are complained of. Such a motion was made and argued by Miss Anthony's counsel before Judge Hunt, who refused to grant a new trial. Thus it was Judge Hunt alone who was to decide whether Judge Hunt was wrong. It is manifest that the opportunity for securing justice even before the most honest of judges, would be somewhat less than before an entirely distinct tribunal, as the judge would be prejudiced in favor of his own opinion, and the best and most learned of judges are human and fallible; while if a judge is disposed to be unfair, it is perfectly easy for him to suppress all attempts of a party injured by his decision to set it aside.

The only remedy for a party thus wronged is by an appeal to the public. Such an appeal, as a friend of justice and of the law, without regard to Miss Anthony's case in any other aspect, the writer makes in this article. The public, thus the only appellate tribunal, should willingly listen to such a case, and pass its own supreme and decisive judgment upon it.

The writer cannot but regard Judge Hunt's course as not only irregular as a matter of law, but a very dangerous encroachment on the right of every person accused to be tried by a jury. It is by yielding to such encroachments that liberty are lost.

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