Ungar v. Sarafite
Decided on Mar. 30; 1964 376 US 575


I. ISSUES II. CASE SUMMARY III. AMICI CURIAE IV. DECISION V. WIN OR LOSS?
I. ISSUES:

A. Issues Discussed: Due process, 14th Amendment, Criminal Procedure

B. Legal Question Presented:

Should a judge that charges a person with contempt of court be disqualified from participating in the post-trial contempt proceedings because of bias?

II. CASE SUMMARY:

A. Background:

During a state criminal trial in New York, a lawyer who was serving as a witness for the prosecution criticized the trial judge's rulings and refused to answer questions. He was charged with contempt, and the same judge who charged him presided over the hearing for the contempt charges.

A request for a continuance was denied, and the witness, himself an attorney, did not defend, arguing that a continuance and a hearing before another judge should be allowed to prevent bias. The judge found the witness' exclamation at trial that he was being "coerced and intimidated and badgered" and that "[t]he Court is suppressing the evidence" to be disruptive contempt of court, and sentenced the witness to 10 days' imprisonment and a fine. The Appellate Division affirmed, and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed.

B. Counsel of Record:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
C. The Arguments:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Unavailable Unavailable
III. AMICI CURIAE:
ACLU Side
(Petitioner/Appellant)
Opposing Side
(Respondent/Appellee)
Osmond K. Fraenkel filed a brief for the New York Civil Liberties Union, as amicus curiae, urging reversal. Osmond K. Fraenkel and Emanuel Redfield argued the cause for appellant. Mr. Redfield also filed briefs for appellant. H. Richard Uviller argued the cause for appellee. With him on the brief was Frank S. Hogan.

IV. THE SUPREME COURT'S DECISION:

"We have determined that the appeal must be dismissed for want of jurisdiction...

Petitioner, Ungar, claims his constitutional rights to a fair hearing were violated because his contemptuous remarks were a personal attack on the judge which necessarily, and without more, biased the judge and disqualified him from presiding at the post-trial contempt hearing. The New York Court of Appeals rejected the claim and we see no error in this conclusion. Assuming that there are criticisms of judicial conduct which are so personal and so probably productive of bias that the judge must disqualify himself to avoid being the judge in his own case, we agree with the New York court that this is not such a case. Nor is there anything else of substance in this record which shows any deprivation of petitioner's right to be tried by an unbiased and impartial judge without a direct personal interest in the outcome of the hearing...

The trial judge could reasonably have concluded that petitioner's reliance upon inclement weather was less than candid since Ungar's counsel's previous statement that he could not represent Ungar without an adjournment was grounded upon his engagement in another trial. These matters are, of course, arguable, and other judges in other courts might well grant a continuance in these circumstances. But the fact that something is arguable does not make it unconstitutional. Given the deference necessarily due a state trial judge in regard to the denial or granting of continuances, we cannot say these denials denied Ungar due process of law."

The US Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the New York Court of Appeals.

Justice Vote: 3 Pro vs. 6 Con

  • White, B. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Warren, E. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Clark, T. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Harlan, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Goldberg, A. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Douglas, W. Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)
  • Black, H. Pro (Joined dissenting opinion)
V. A WIN OR LOSS FOR THE ACLU?

The ACLU, as amicus, urged reversal of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit's judgment; the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the lower court in a 6-3 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.