Thursday, October 29, 2009
Hatch Responds to Order Faulting His Rulings
BY DAVID PATTERSON HATCH
As transcribed by Roger M. Grace
(This is the final installment in a series of reminiscences by the judge who presided over a widely followed breach-of-promise trial in 1886 and who died in 1912.)
The written decision of March 14, 1887, granting a new trial to Mr. Elias J. Baldwin, commonly referred to as “Lucky” Baldwin, in the action against him by Miss Louise Perkins for the breach of his promise to marry her, caused me considerable consternation.
Whilst a judge of the Superior Court of the County of Santa Barbara, I had presided in February, 1886, over the trial of Miss Perkins’ action in the County of Los Angeles. The motion was acted upon by the Honorable William A. Cheney, a judge of the Superior Court of this county, after I had resigned my judicial post and had commenced law practice here.
In an article published in this periodical last week, I set forth why I am of the opinion that the jury’s award of $75,000 in favor of Miss Perkins was, in light of Mr. Baldwin’s vast fortune—amounting to about $6,000,000—not excessive. In that article, I remarked:
“Judge Cheney was, I assume, conscientious in surveying verdicts in [breach-of-promise] cases as reflected by appellate opinions, and accurate in setting forth in his order that ‘we find no verdict for damages so great as this in American reports, and but one referred to in the courts of England, in an action of this nature.’ ”
I assumed him to be accurate; I was unduly charitable. In the 1868 case of Clark v. Reese, which has come to my attention, the Supreme Court of California affirmed a $100,000 judgment based on a breach of a promise to marry. The defendant was a Mr. Michael Reese. (The value of his estate at the time of his death in 1878 was estimated by the New York Times as somewhere between $5,000,000 to $10,000,000.)
Judge Cheney, in his written order, said of the damage award: “It is a complete answer to say, it shocks the sense of justice; in other words, it SEEMS excessive.”
Notwithstanding having provided what he deemed a “complete answer” to the motion for a new trial, Judge Cheney proceeded to take issue with my rulings in the case. He declared:
“If the Court [i.e. Judge Cheney] is right in its assertion that errors (undoubtedly unintentional in the excitement and anxiety of such a trial before a jury with all its necessary haste), have occurred that prejudiced the cause of defendant, then this verdict ought not to stand, for the conclusion would follow that it is unusual, unwarrantable, and has a suspicious odor of being the result of prejudice.”
How very kind of Judge Cheney to allow that I did not intentionally err.
I assure you, dear reader, that I was not excited when I rendered my rulings nor in a state of anxiety, nor did I act in haste. If these be allowed to me as excuses for errant rulings, I confess to a lack of an excuse. I do, however, remain unconvinced that error warranting reversal did occur. Perhaps, however, I might have ruled differently had I not confined myself to the law, and relied in addition thereto on my olfactory glands, hereby undertaking, like Judge Cheney, to sniff for suspicious odors.
I shall not recite fully the picayune criticisms of my rulings offered by Judge Cheney in his pathetic effort to demonstrate that it was judicial error that had engendered prejudice on the part of the 12 men of the jury. Rather, I shall simply make note that Judge Cheney appears to have overlooked Sec. 475 of the Code of Civil Procedure which, at the time, provided: “The Court must, in every stage of an action, disregard any error or defect in the pleadings or proceedings which does not affect the substantial rights of the parties, and no judgment shall be reversed or affected by reason of such error or defect.” A few of the cases spoke in terms of “harmless error.”
It was a matter of common knowledge that Miss Perkins, in 1885, had gone off with a young man, Will Fallon, and that they shared a room in a hotel in San Bernardino. This occurred after Mr. Baldwin breached his promise to marry Miss Perkins. I admitted evidence that Miss Perkins was not chaste at the time Mr. Baldwin made his pledge of marriage because, if believed, it would have barred the action; I allowed testimony of alleged promiscuity prior to the breach, for it would have justified the breach; however, I barred cross-examination of Miss Perkins as to sexual conduct occurring after the breach, it being irrelevant. Judge Cheney faulted me for this. Miss Perkins has testified as to injury to her reputation and feelings. Her associations and conduct subsequent to Mr. Baldwin marrying another woman might have been a source of her harmed feelings and reputation, Judge Cheney speculated. Judge Cheney acted on the motion based on whiffing the air and conjecturing.
On June 28, 1887, Miss Perkins settled the case for $12,000 in cash, paid to her by a detective working for Mr. Baldwin.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company