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    CARPENTER v. WINN, 221 U.S. 533 (1911)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    CARPENTER v. WINN, 221 U.S. 533 (1911)

    221 U.S. 533

    JOSEPH N. CARPENTER et al., Petitioners,
    No. 135.

    Argued April 20, 21, 1911.
    Decided May 29, 1911.

    [221 U.S. 533, 534]   In an action wherein David J. Winn was plaintiff and Joseph N. Carpenter and others defendants, the plaintiff, Winn, obtained an order from the court, requiring the defendants to produce certain books and papers said to contain evidence material to make out the plaintiff's case. The order required the defendants to produce 'all of their books, papers, writings, account books, day books, blotters, journals, registers, cash books, check books, contracts contract slips and memoranda, made or received by them, their agents, and employees, which contain any memoranda or any business transactions' relating to the plaintiff during the years 1905 and 1906, and particularly pertaining to a certain brokerage transaction in cotton. The order required such production before the trial, and that the plaintiff and his attorneys should be allowed, at the office of the defendants, within a time named, access to such books and papers, with leave to 'examine and investigate the same, and to make copies and extracts from such books, documents, and writings.' The order concluded thus: 'In the event the defendants fail to comply with this order, judgment against them shall be entered by default.'

    The defendants, conceiving that the court had no authority to require the production of their business books and correspondence before the trial of the cause, for the investigation of the plaintiff, declined to obey the order. Thereupon judgment by default was entered and a jury impaneled to assess the plaintiff's damages, which being done, there was judgment for the plaintiff for the amount so assessed. This judgment was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals, and the case has come here upon a writ of certiorari. [221 U.S. 533, 535]   Mr. John R. Abney for petitioners.

    [221 U.S. 533, 537]   Messrs. John W. Booth by and Ernest E. Baldwin for respondent.

    Statement by Mr. Justice Lurton:

    Mr. Justice Lurton, after making the foregoing statement of the case, delivered the opinion of the court:

    The question is whether, under 724 of the revised Statutes (U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 583), a court of law may compel one party to an action to produce, in advance of the trial, books and papers for examination and inspection of his adversary.

    Section 724 is substantially the 15th section of the judiciary act of 1789 [1 Stat. at L. 82, chap. 20, U. S. Comp. Stat. 1901, p. 583]. It reads as follows:

    The purpose of the provision is to provide a substitute for a bill of discovery in aid of a legal action. It may be invoked only when the document sought 'contains evidence pertinent to the issue,' and 'in cases and under circumstances when they might be compelled to produce the same by the ordinary rules of proceeding in chancery.' The penalty for failing to comply with such an order is [221 U.S. 533, 538]   exceedingly stringent, -that of a nonsuit or a judgment by default.

    For more than a century trial courts have disagreed as to wheher, under this enactment, the procedure is limited to a requirement that the books, documents, and writings be produced at the trial, or, in the discretion of the court, before the trial, for such investigation and examination as the party obtaining the order might desire

    The contention upon the one side is that 'in the trial' does not mean 'at the trial,' or 'during the trial,' but at any time after issue joined.

    The doubt about the meaning of the provision is engendered by the use of the words 'in the trial.' It is, of course, urged that if the Congress had intended to limit the right to such production, it would have said 'at the trial,' or, 'on the trial.' But it is said with equal force that if the purpose was to compel such production before the trial and after issue joined, Congress would have substituted the words, 'in an action at law,' instead of using words seemingly more restrictive.

    But, taking the words as written, what must we infer Congress to have meant by empowering the court to compel production 'in the trial?'

    Some of the considerations which collectively lead us to conclude that the words 'in the trial' mean 'on or at the trial' are these:

    a. The significance of the word 'trial.' Does that word embrace anything more than is commonly understood when we speak of the 'trial' of an action at law? Or does it include, as contended here, every step in a cause between issue joined and that judicial examination and decision of the issues in an action at law, which we always refer to as the trial?

    Blackstone defines 'trial' to be the examination of the matters of fact in issue. 3 Bl. Com. 350. This definition is adopted by Bouvier. In Miller v. Tobin, 9 Sawy. 401, 411, 18 Fed. [221 U.S. 533, 539]   609, 616, Judge Deady applied this meaning to the removal act, saying: " Trial' is a common-law term, and is commonly used to denote that step in an action by which issues or questions of fact are decided.' But the word has often a broader significance, as referring to that final examination and decision of matter of law as well as fact, for which every antecedent step is a preparation, which we commonly denominate 'the trial.' Many cases are cited for this definition in 28 Am. & Eng. Enc. Law, p. 636. But this does not help out those who would broaden the meaning so as to justify an order to produce before such judicial examination of both matters of fact and law which constitute that final step which is called 'the trial.'

    b. 'In the trial' implies a restricted use of the procedure as compared to a bill of discovery.

    Under the ordinary rules of procedure in chancery to obtain a discovery of evidence material to the maintenance or defense of an action at law, such evidence must, in the very nature of things, result in production before the 'trial' at law. Such procedure is still open if it is desired to have the evidence produced before the trial. A court of equity does not lose its jurisdiction to entertain a bill for the discovery of evidence or to enjoin the trial at law until obtained, because the powers of the courts of law have been enlarged so as to make the equitable remedy unnecessary in some circumstances. See the very instructive discussion of the question by Judge Wallace in Colgate v. Campaignie Francaise du Telegraphe, 23 Blatchf. 86, 23 Fed. 82.

    In Guyot v. Hilton, 32 Fed. 743, an application under 724 to require the plaintiff to produce for the inspection of the defendants the business books of the plaintiff's firm for certain years 'in order to enable them to prepare for trial' was denied, Judge Lacombe saying that the proper practice to obtain such relief was by a bill in equity for discovery.

    The statute may therefore be well regarded as affording [221 U.S. 533, 540]   a short and quick way of obtaining documentary evidence for use 'in the trial' of an action at law, leaving the parties to a bill of discovery if they desire the production before the trial for the purpose of preparing for it.

    c. Another consideration leading to the same conclusion is found in the fact that a bill of discovery cannot be used merely for the purpose of enabling the plaintiff in such a bill to pry into the case of his adversary to learn its strength or weakness. A discovery sought upon suspicion, surmise, or vague guesses is called a 'fishing bill,' and will be dismissed. Story, Eq. Pl. 320 to 325. Such a bill must seek only evidence which is material to the support of the complainant's own case, and prying into the nature of his adversary's case will not be tolerated. The principle is stated by a great authority upon equity thus: 'Nor has a party a right to any discovery except of facts and deeds and writings necessary to his own title under which he claims; for he is not at liberty to pry into the title of the adverse party.' 2 Story, Eq. Jur. 1490; Kettlewell v. Barstow, L. R. 7 Ch. 689, 694, 41 L. J. Ch. N. S. 7, 18, 27 L. T. N. S. 258, 20 Week. Rep. 917. In Ingilby v. Shafto, 33 Beav. 31, 9 Jur. N. S. 1141, 32 L. J. Ch. N. S. 807, 8 L. T. N. S. 785, it was held:

    The province of discovery in equity is not to compel a defendant, who is a plaintiff in a suit at law, to disclose in what manner he intends to make out his case at law. The plaintiff in equity is entitled only to the discovery of such matters in the knowledge or possession of the defendant in equity, as will enable him to make out his own case at law; and exceptions to an answer omitting to respond to inquiries touching the mode in which the defendant purposes to make out his case at law, and as to documents 'relating to matters in the bill mention,' were overruled.

    This 'fundamental rule,' as it is called by Judge Story in his work upon Equity Pleading, 317, in view of the express limitation of the section 'to cases and under circumstances' when discovery might be obtained in equity, [221 U.S. 533, 541]   implies that production of an adversary's documents should not be required before trial, that one party may examine and inspect in search of evidence which he may or may not use in the trial.

    d. Another consideration arises from the very stringent penalty which is to result if the judge shall conclude that the documents desired have not been produced. The party against whom such an order is sought has the undoubted right to make every objection which he could make were he a defendant in equity to a bill seeking discovery of the same evidence; for the right to compel production is no broader under the statute than under a discovery proceeding in equity. This would include the right to insist that the case, the circumstances, and the purpose to be advanced, were not such as to justify the order. He must also be heard, if he desires, upon the pertinency of the evidence which is being sought, and the right to insist that he be not required to disclose that which pertains only to his side of the case, but only that which is material to make out the case of the party seeking the order.

    When, where, and how are these important questions to be heard and decided? If heard by the court in advance of the trial, it will often be necessary that it shall possess itself of that kind of knowledge of the case which can be had only on the trial where the evidence is to be produced. This in many cases will practically require two trials: one before the jury is impaneled, another after. Opportunities for a miscarriage of justice, as well as inconvenience to the trial judge, may be reduced to a minimum by making an order to produce at the trial, or there show cause why he should not. Bas v. Steele, 3 Wash. C. C. 381, Fed. Cas. No. 1,088; Dunham v. Riley, 4 Wash. C. C. 126, Fed. Cas. No. 4,155.

    In Bas v. Steele the order was to produce at the trial. Nothing is said in the opinion of Mr. Justice Washington about production before the trial, but the construction of [221 U.S. 533, 542]   the act by the learned justice furnishes practical reason for construing the statute as we have indicated. Construing the section, he said:

    In Dunham v. Riley the order was to produce on the trial. Reasons for making the rule nisi instead of absolute are given by Mr. Justice Washington, who said:

    The statute has never been construed by this court, and the practice and decisions of the inferior courts have no such uniformity as to exert any controlling influence. There are perhaps as many cases upon one side as upon the other. We shall therefore refer to but a few of them.

    The third circuit court of appeals construes the statute as requiring production only on the trial. Cassatt v. Mitchell Coal & Coke Co. 10 L.R.A.( N.S.) 99, 81 C. C. A. 80, 150 Fed. 32, 44; Pennsylvania R. Co. v. International Coal Min. Co. 84 C. C. A. 421, 156 Fed. 765, 769.

    The circuit court of appeals for the second circuit reached an opposite conclusion in the case now before us.

    Since Jacques v. Collins, 2 Blatchf. 23, Fed. Cas. No. 7,167, decided in 1846, the United States courts for the New York districts have generally followed the broad interpretation of Judge Betts,-an interpretation which was plainly influenced by the practice in the courts of the state of New York under a state statute dealing with the matter. It is significant that in Jacques v. Collins there was no opposition to the rule to produce before trial, and no consideration given to the practice under the statute in courts of the United States. [221 U.S. 533, 544]   In Victor G. Bloede Co. v. Joseph Bancroft & Sons Co. 98 Fed. 175, though since overruled by the circuit court of appeals for the third circuit, there is to be found a review of most of the cases bearing upon the subject.

    The conclusion which we reach as to the meaning of the statute finds support in many reported cases, which, although no more numerous than those upon the other side, are entitled, as we conceive, to the greater weight as precedents. The very early practice under what was then known as the 15th section of the judiciary act of 1789, as shown by Geyger v. Geyger, 2 Dall. 332, 1 L. ed. 403, Fed. Cas. No. 5,375; Hylton v. Brown, 1 Wash. C. C. 298, Fed. Cas. No. 6,981; Triplett v. Bank of Washington, 3 Cranch, C. C. 646, Fed. Cas. No. 14,178, and Dunham v. Riley, 4 Wash. C. C. 126, Fed. Cas. No. 4,155, was to direct the production of books and documents at the trial. The very first reported opinion under the section, the Geyger Case cited above, was by Mr. Justice Patterson, one of the subcommittee of the judiciary committee of the Senate which framed the act. The order in that case was one requiring production on the trial of the action. Hylton v. Brown, 1 Wash. C. C. 298, Fed. Cas. No. 6,981; Bas v. Steele, 3 Wash. C. C. 381, Fed. Cas. No. 1,088, and Dunham v. Riley, 4 Wash. C. C. 126, Fed. Cas. No. 4,155, were ceses in which Mr. Justice Washington presided. Some of the observations of the justice in Bas v. Steele and Dunham v. Riley have already found a place in this opinion. Two other of the early practice cases worthy of notice are Triplett v. Bank of Washington, 3 Cranch, C. C. 646, Fed. Cas. No. 14,178, and Waller v. Stewart, 4 Cranch, C. C. 532, Fed. Cas. No. 17,109.

    In 1853 the interpretation of this section of the judiciary act came before Mr. Justice Curtis, and his view of the question is found in Iasigi v. Brown, 1 Curt. C. C. 401, Fed. Cas. No. 6,993. There was a motion, based upon affidavits, to compel the production and delivery to the clerk of the court of certain documents alleged to contain evidence material to the issues in a pending action. The opinion was upon this motion. The justice said:

    In Merchants' Nat. Bank v. State Nat. Bank, 3 Cliff. 201, Fed. Cas. No. 9,448, Mr. Justice Clifford summarized procedure under the section. Among other things he said:

    For the reasons we have stated, and upon the authorities we have cited, the judgments of both courts must be reversed.

    Mr. Justice Hughes dissents.

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