Patterson v. Colorado Case Brief

Summary of Patterson v. Colorado
Citation: 205 U.S. 454 (1907)

Relevant Facts: Appellant Patterson published articles and a cartoon critical of the Colorado Supreme Court. He criticized the judges on that Court, and questioned their motives, while it remained in dispute whether the cases he referenced were pending or finalized. Thereafter, Patterson was charged with contempt. Patterson moved to quash the information, citing local law, the Colorado Constitution, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the federal Constitution. He also answered the information, admitting publication of the articles, denying contempt, and explaining at length his position on the subject-matter of the controversies. Patterson claimed that the Supreme Court of Colorado was engaged in a scheme to seat Republican candidates in favor of Democrats who had been elected, and included two judges at the Supreme Court amongst those he claimed were illegally in their positions. Patterson claimed that he had a public duty to expose the conduct of the Court. His motions were denied, Patterson was convicted of contempt. Patterson appealed, raising Constitutional objections and claiming that the Colorado Supreme Court should not be allowed to sit in judgment of its own behavior- as he alleged they were in his case.

Issue: Is there a constitutional limit to state court contempt powers when those powers are used to prosecute journalists for commentary on the motives of judges in (allegedly) pending cases?

Holding: The Court dismissed the writ of error and therefore did not reach a decision on the merits. However, Justice indicated strong willingness to afford courts and judges latitude in controlling the administration of justice, including limitations on outside influence.

Reasoning: Justice Holmes, writing for the majority, first explained that the Court was limited in its ability to review cases. The Court would not address local law, local procedures, or the question of whether the cases criticized were pending as each was capable of local resolution and the Fourteenth Amendment did not limit those inquiries. The Court also dismissed concerns that the Supreme Court of Colorado had departed from established precedent, explaining that no individual has the right to insist that procedures once adopted remain unchanged. Similarly, the Court refused to address whether Patterson’s conduct constituted contempt, explaining that both the definition of contempt and determining individual cases of contempt are matters for local Courts. As to the constitutional questions, the Court declined to extend First Amendment protections to state behavior based on incorporation through the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As to the question of the right to free press, however, Justice Holmes explained that the First Amendment was primarily concerned with prohibiting prior restraint rather than restricting subsequent punishment should publications be contrary to the public welfare. Comparing contemptuous writings to libelous ones, the majority explained that neither is protected. Writings about pending matters have the tendency to disrupt tribunals, and courts have inherent authority to limit such outside influence. Under the circumstances, Patterson’s claims that his articles were true provided no defense to contempt charges. Finally, the Court explained that contempt proceedings are not personal, and thus judges were not deciding their own cases by proceeding with contempt charges. The Court found no defect in the procedure for imposing punishment here, concluding that Patterson was afforded all of the requisite safeguards and the state had breached no constitutional limitation. Finding no error, the Court dismissed the writ of error and explained that constitutional defenses require more than simply appealing to that document.

Dissent: Justice Harlan dissented, explaining his view that the majority paid insufficient attention to important First Amendment concerns. He argued that the First Amendment was fundamental, applicable to the states by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment, and not subject to override by claims that the public welfare demanded restrictions. Justice Brewer also dissented, pointing out that he did not concur with Justice Harlan, but explaining that the Court should have exercised jurisdiction to determine what the constitution had to say about Patterson’s rights and the alleged deprivation of those rights.

Conclusion: The Court did not reach a determination on the merits. However, the majority here clearly refused to incorporate the protections of the First Amendment to prohibit state action and afforded courts wide latitude in controlling the proceedings before them.

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