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In re Eldridge

Court of Appeals of New York

June 18, 1880, Argued ; September 28, 1880, Decided

No Number in Original

Opinion

 [*164]  Finch, J. The questions raised on this appeal involve the professional character of a member of the bar, and the propriety of the decision of the General Term which has suspended him from the office, and the duties of an attorney for three years. While the discipline may seem light, it is yet severe, for it is the public and grave conclusion of the court, deliberately [**7]  spread upon the record, that the appellant has been guilty of conduct unbecoming his profession, and deserving  [*165]  judicial censure. The struggle to reverse this determination, and defend the reputation assailed, awakens our sympathy, and demands of us patient care and consideration to prevent even a trace of injustice, while at the same time, our duty to an honorable profession, the need of preserving unsullied that high standard of truth and purity by which alone an officer of justice should be measured, demands of us a cold and deliberate scrutiny, and firmness in declaring its result. We have, therefore, examined minutely all the voluminous papers submitted on the argument, and considered carefully the able discussion at the bar, and the full and thoroughly prepared briefs of the respective counsel, desiring to omit no labor necessary to a correct conclusion.

A preliminary question needs to be considered. It is insisted that the order of the General Term is not appealable, because resting in discretion; and that where no legal question is involved, no dispute as to jurisdiction or authority, the conclusion of the Supreme Court upon the facts is final, and not subject to [**8]  review. We do not so understand the authorities to which we are referred. ( Matter of Gale, 75 N.Y. 526; Matter of Percy, 36 id. 651; Matter of Kelly, 59 id. 595.) While in one at least of these cases, language is used susceptible of the interpretation claimed, the fact remains that this court did review upon the merits in at least two of the cases, the action of the Supreme Court, and consider and discuss the proofs upon which that action was founded. ] While the measure of punishment consequent upon a conclusion of guilt may fairly be said to be within the discretion of the immediate tribunal, the conclusion itself, the adjudication of guilt or innocence upon the facts, is not so far the subject of discretion as to be beyond review. The class of orders not reviewable for that reason are substantially those addressed to the favor of the court, to which the applicant has no absolute right, which may or may not be granted without wrong on either hand. The order in question is not of that character. The guilt or innocence of this appellant does not rest in the absolute discretion of any court. An acquittal is his right if upon  [*166]  the facts he is not shown to be guilty,  [**9]  and we cannot evade or avoid the inquiry. The cases in the Supreme Court of the United States cited as holding the contrary, we think are misapplied. ( Ex parte Bradley, 7 Wall. 364 at 365; Bradley v. Fisher, 13 Wall. 335 at 336; Bradwell v. The State, 16 Wall. 130; Ex parte Robinson, 19 Wall. 505 at 511; Ex parte Burr, 9 Wheat. 529 at 530.) ] A plain line of distinction is drawn between proceedings for a contempt occurring in the presence of the judge, and the facts constituting which are certified by him, and cases of professional misconduct out of the immediate presence of the court where the actual truth is matter of evidence. In the former class of cases, it is held that the facts embodied in the order of the judge must be taken as true. In the latter the right of review is asserted not only where there had been want of jurisdiction, but also where the court below "had decided erroneously on the testimony." Its discretion is pronounced not unlimited; it must be a "sound discretion;" and while not to be overruled in cases of doubt, is yet the subject of review.

As we approach the facts of the case at bar another preliminary question is to be considered, raised this time on behalf of the [**10]  appellant. He insists that the affidavits and papers upon which was founded the order to show cause, and which were transmitted to the referee appointed to determine the issues raised, were not evidence upon those issues, and could have no other proper office or effect than that of pleadings or statements of the charges or accusations relied upon. In reply, the broad doctrine is asserted that these affidavits were evidence, that the common-law rules did not apply to the proceeding, that every thing was admissible, and its effect only the subject of consideration. The language of a previous decision of this court, that "the common-law rules of evidence do not apply to proceedings of this character," was pressed upon our attention. ( In re Percy, 36 N.Y. 651.) The doctrine in that case was correct to the extent of its application. It related only to the kind and character of evidence presented to the court for the purpose of originating its action. For that purpose affidavits were properly held sufficient, and also the verified minutes of a  [*167]  trial at the Circuit. And it was only with reference to this preliminary step, the evidence necessary to justify action by the court,  [**11]  that the language cited was used. The opinion in that case goes on to declare that "the court may and ought to cause the charges to be preferred, whenever satisfied from what has occurred in its presence, or from any satisfactory proof that a case exists where the public good and ends of justice call for it. Upon the return of the order the court proceeded properly to investigate the charges." The decision, therefore, falls very far short of holding that upon the trial of issues involving professional misconduct, and the right of an attorney to retain his office and its privileges, the common-law rules of evidence may be disregarded. We should be slow to follow such an authority, if it existed. The issue is vital to the party assailed. An adverse decision dooms him always to disgrace, and often to poverty and want. His professional life is full of adversaries. Always in front of him there is an antagonist, sometimes angry and occasionally bitter and venomous. His duties are delicate and responsible, and easily subject to misconstruction. To say that when he denies the charges brought against him he may be tried without the rights and the safeguards which belong to the humblest [**12]  criminal, would be to adopt a dangerous rule, and one without reason or justification. The question is important and it is best that we decide it.

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82 N.Y. 161 *; 1880 N.Y. LEXIS 340 **

In the Matter of Titus B. Eldridge, an Attorney.

Prior History:  [**1]  Appeal from order of the General Term of the Supreme Court, in the first judicial department, suspending the above-named Titus B. Eldridge from his office as attorney and counselor, and forbidding him from practicing law for three years, on account of alleged professional misconduct.

The facts appear sufficiently in the opinion.

Disposition: Order affirmed.

CORE TERMS

answers, the will, charges, perjury, cross-interrogatories, cases, deposition

Civil Procedure, Appeals, Reviewability of Lower Court Decisions, Adverse Determinations, Legal Ethics, Sanctions, Disciplinary Proceedings, Appeals, Standards of Review, Abuse of Discretion, Criminal Law & Procedure, Trials, Examination of Witnesses, Cross-Examination, Evidence, Admissibility, Procedural Matters, General Overview, Hearings