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BALZAC v. PEOPLE PORTO RICO.

decided: April 10, 1922.

BALZAC
v.
PEOPLE OF PORTO RICO.



ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT OF PORTO RICO.

Author: Taft

[ 258 U.S. Page 300]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT delivered the opinion of the court.

These are two prosecutions for criminal libel brought against the same defendant, Jesus M. Balzac, on informations filed in the District Court for Arecibo, Porto Rico, by the District Attorney for that District. Balzac was the editor of a daily paper published in Arecibo, known as "El Baluarte", and the articles upon which the charges of libel were based were published on April 16 and April 23, 1918, respectively. In each case the defendant demanded a jury. The code of criminal procedure of Porto Rico grants a jury trial in cases of felony but not in misdemeanors. The defendant, nevertheless, contended that he was entitled to a jury in such a case, under the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, and that the language of the alleged libels was only fair comment and their publication was protected by the First Amendment. His contentions were overruled, he was tried by the court and was convicted in both cases and sentenced to five months' imprisonment in the district jail in the first, and to four months in the second, and to the payment of the costs in each. The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court of Porto Rico. That court affirmed both judgments. People v. Balzac, 28 P.R. 139, Second Case, 28 P.R. 141.

The first question in these cases is one of jurisdiction of this court. By § 244 of the Judicial Code, approved March 3, 1911, it was provided that writs of error and appeals from the final judgments and decrees of the Supreme Court of Porto Rico might be prosecuted to this court in any case in which was drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of, or authority exercised under, the United States, or wherein the Constitution of the United States, or a treaty thereof, or an act of Congress was brought in question and the right claimed thereunder was denied, and this without regard to the

[ 258 U.S. Page 301]

     amount involved. By the Act of January 28, 1915, c. 22, 38 Stat. 803, § 244 of the Judicial Code was repealed, but § 246 was amended and made to apply to the appellate jurisdiction of this court in respect to the decisions of the Supreme Court not only of Hawaii, as before, but also Porto Rico, and it was provided that writs of error to those courts from this court could be prosecuted in the same class of cases as those in which this court was authorized under § 237 of the Judicial Code to review decisions of state courts of last resort. Section 237 at that time allowed a writ of error to final decisions in state courts of last resort where was drawn in question the validity of a treaty, or a statute of, or an authority exercised under, the United States, and the decision was against its validity; or where was drawn in question the validity of a statute of, or an authority exercised under any State, on the ground of its being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, and the decision was in favor of its validity; or where any title, right, privilege or immunity was claimed under the Constitution, or any treaty or statute of, or commission held or authority exercised under, the United States, and the decision was against the title, right, privilege or immunity especially set up or claimed by either party under such Constitution, treaty, statute, commission or authority. By Act of January 28, 1915, 38 Stat. 803, 804, amending § 246, this court was given power by certiorari to bring up for review all final judgments or decrees in civil or criminal cases in the supreme courts of Porto Rico and Hawaii, other than those reviewable here by writ of error because in the class similar to that described in § 237 of the Judicial Code. By Act of September 6, 1916, c. 448, 39 Stat. 726, the jurisdiction of this court to review by writ of error, under § 237, final judgments and decrees of state courts of last resort was cut down by omitting cases (other than those involving the validity of

[ 258 U.S. Page 302]

     a treaty, statute or authority exercised under the United States or any State) wherein a title, right, privilege, or immunity, was claimed under the Constitution, or any treaty or statute of, or commission held, or authority exercised under, the United States, and the decision was against such title, right, privilege or immunity, and such cases, it was provided, could only be examined on review in this court by certiorari.

The question now presented is whether the amendment to § 237 of the Judicial Code by the Act of 1916 applies to, and affects, the appellate jurisdiction of this court in reviewing decisions of the Supreme Court of Porto Rico. We think it does. We think that the manifest purpose of the Act of 1915, amending § 246 of the Code, in its reference to § 237 of the Judicial Code, was to assimilate the appellate jurisdiction of this court over the supreme courts of Porto Rico and Hawaii to that over state courts of last resort, and that the reference in amended § 246 to § 237 may be fairly construed to embrace subsequent changes in § 237 that are not obviously inapplicable.

This brings us to the question whether there was drawn in question in these cases the validity of a statute of Porto Rico under the Constitution of the United States. The Penal Code of Porto Rico divides crimes into felonies and misdemeanors. (Rev. Stats. and Codes of Porto Rico, 1911, Penal Code, § 13.) A felony is described as a crime punishable by death or by imprisonment in the penitentiary. Every other crime is declared to be a misdemeanor. Penal Code, § 14. Section 178 of the Porto Rican Code of Criminal Procedure provided that issues of fact in cases of felony should be tried by a jury when the defendant so elected, but gave no such right in the case of misdemeanors. This was construed by the Supreme Court to deny such right. People v. Bird, 5 P.R. 387.

By § 244 (5676) of the Penal Code (as amended by Act of March 9, 1911, p. 71), the publication of a libel is made

[ 258 U.S. Page 303]

     punishable by a fine not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment in jail for a term not exceeding two years, or both such fine and imprisonment, and also the costs of the action in the discretion of the court. It is, therefore, plain that libel under the Porto Rican law is a misdemeanor, and a jury trial was not required therein. By the Act of July 22, 1919 (Laws of Porto Rico, 1919, No. 84, p. 684), a jury trial is now given in misdemeanors, but that did not come into force until after these libels were published and these trials had.

When the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure were first passed in 1901, they both contained the provision that in all cases of libel the jury should determine the law and the fact. It was held, however, by the Supreme Court of Porto Rico in People v. Bird, 5 P.R. 387, 405, that this did not give a jury trial but only made provision that, if and when a right of jury trial was given in such cases, the jury should have the power to determine the law and the fact. Thereafter the Act of March 10, 1904 (Laws of Porto Rico, 1904, p. 130), expressly repealed all reference to trials for libel in the jury act.

The effect of the Penal Code of Procedure, as construed by the Supreme Court of Porto Rico, and of the Act of March 10th repealing the jury act as to libel cases, was a statutory denial of the right of jury trial in such cases. A demand for a jury trial in this case, therefore, drew in question the validity of the statutes upon which the court relied in denying the demand. This necessarily leads to the conclusion that these cases are in the same class as those which come to this court by writ of error under § 237, as amended by the Act of 1916, and that jurisdiction by writ of error exists.

Was the issue properly saved in the record by the defendant? We think it was. The demand for a jury trial, the statute to the contrary notwithstanding, was made at the trial. ...


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