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Circuit Court Opinions:

Associate Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, United States v. Sanges (1891)

Associate Justice Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar (1888–1893)

United States v. Sanges, 48 F. 78 (C.C.N.D. Ga. 1891) [Fifth Circuit], writ of error dismissed, 144 U.S. 310 (1892)

Sanges was a prosecution brought under the Enforcement Act of 1870 for the murder of a man in retaliation against his testimony before a federal grand jury. The government alleged that the defendants violated the act’s prohibition “to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having exercised the same.”

In ruling on the defendants’ motion to quash the indictment, Justice Lamar was faced with the question of whether testifying before a federal grand jury was a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States within the meaning of the statute. He answered that question in the negative, ruling that testifying in court was a “public right, i.e., the right of the United States to have its witnesses and their testimony, and to have them protected in going to and returning from the court.” Lamar also compared the charges in Sanges to those which were dismissed in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) on the grounds that the Constitution protected the rights in question against encroachment by state action rather than by the actions of private individuals. He therefore dismissed the indictment.

The case gave rise to a significant legal precedent in 1892, when the federal government sought to challenge Lamar’s decision in the Supreme Court by writ of error. The government relied on the Evarts Act of 1891, which permitted cases to be taken to the Supreme Court by appeal or writ of error when the construction or application of a constitutional provision was at issue. The Court ruled that the government could not seek a writ of error, citing the “overwhelming weight of American authority, that the State has no right to sue out a writ of error upon a judgment in favor of the defendant in a criminal case, except under and in accordance with express statutes.” No federal statute indicated that Congress—which had only granted the Court appellate jurisdiction over convictions for capital crimes three years before—had intended to expand the Court’s jurisdiction so significantly.