Landmark Supreme Court Case: Hurtado v. California (1884)
Hurtado v. California (1884) is the 25th landmark Supreme Court case, the third in the Criminal Rights module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Hurtado v. California (1884)
Joseph Hurtado discovered that his wife, Susie, was having an affair with their friend, José Antonio Estuardo. After measures that Hurtado took to put an end to the affair, such as temporarily sending his wife away to live with her parents and then assaulting Estuardo in a bar after his wife returned and the affair resumed, proved futile, Hurtado fatally shot Estuardo. Hurtado was arrested for the crime but was not indicted by a grand jury.
According to the California State Constitution at the time:
Offenses heretofore required to be prosecuted by indictment, shall be prosecuted by information, after examination and commitment by a magistrate, or by indictment, with or without such examination and commitment, as may be prescribed by law. A grand jury shall be drawn and summoned at least once a year in each county.
An information is a written set of accusations made by a prosecutor.
The Sacramento County judge examined the information and determined that Hurtado should be brought to trial. Hurtado was tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death. At issue was whether or not the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause extended the Fifth Amendment’s Indictment Clause requiring indictment by grand jury to the states.
Q: Does a state criminal proceeding based on an information rather than a grand jury indictment violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause?
A: No. Any legal proceeding that protects liberty and justice is due process.
Q: Is a grand jury indictment required by the Fifth Amendment applicable to state criminal trials via the Fourteenth Amendment?
A: No. Since the Fifth Amendment contains both a guarantee of grand jury proceedings and a guarantee of due process, the latter cannot embrace the former.
7-1 decision ruling the words “due process of law” in the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution do not necessarily require an indictment by a grand jury in a prosecution by a state for murder. States should be free to construct their own laws without infringement and that the Fourteenth Amendment was not intended to guarantee the right of a grand jury because it would have been specifically referenced.
Though nothing in the Constitution is superfluous, it cannot be locked into static conceptions bound by time and place. Due process rights are not violated with an information for it is “merely a preliminary proceeding and can result in no final judgment.”
Next Criminal Justice Case: Twining v. New jersey (1908)
Previous Criminal Justice Case: Strauder v. West Virginia (1880)
Next Case: Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886)
Previous Case: The Civil Rights Cases (1883)