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United States v. Preiser

decided: May 9, 1974.


Appeal by the State of New York from an order, based on the retroactive effect of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, 93 S. Ct. 705 (1973), granting habeas corpus in the United States District Court, Southern District of New York, Stewart, Judge. Affirmed.

Kaufman, Chief Judge, Smith and Anderson, Circuit Judges.

Author: Anderson

ANDERSON, Circuit Judge:

On October 24, 1966, Dr. Jesse Williams, II, a licensed physician, was convicted by a jury for manslaughter in the first degree under former New York Penal Law § 1050*fn1 (McKinney's Consol. Laws, c. 40, 1944) for the death of Miss Sara Carr following an abortion he performed upon her at his office. He was sentenced to 5 to 10 years imprisonment, and was released on parole in 1972.

At the time of the abortion, July 23, 1965, Miss Carr was in her second month of pregnancy. Death resulted from a series of seizures, the cause of which remains unknown. The medical examiner testified that the operation was perfectly performed, and although Dr. Williams did not call an ambulance and report Miss Carr's death until hours after it occurred, the State has not shown that negligence in this respect prevented the patient from being resuscitated. United States ex rel. Williams v. Follette, 313 F. Supp. 269, 272 (S.D.N.Y. 1970).

Dr. Williams appealed his conviction, claiming that § 1050 violated the privacy protections of the Constitution, but the conviction was affirmed without opinion, 33 App. Div. 2d 534 (Case I) (1st Dept. 1969), and leave to seek review by the Court of Appeals was denied.

He then petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, but the district court (Pollack, Judge), denied relief and instructed him to give the State an opportunity to reconsider in light of New York's liberalized abortion procedure, McKinney's Session Laws of New York, 193rd Session -- 1970, ch. 127,*fn2 and court decisions indicating that abortions were matters of constitutional right. United States ex rel. Williams v. Follette, supra, at 272, 274. On appeal of that ruling this court held exhaustion did not require State reconsideration and remanded for a decision on the merits. United States ex rel. Williams v. Zelker, 445 F.2d 451, 454 (2 Cir. 1971). The petitioner agreed to a stay pending the Supreme Court's decisions in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, 93 S. Ct. 705 (1973) and Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179, 35 L. Ed. 2d 201, 93 S. Ct. 739 (1973). Subsequently the district court (Stewart, Judge) held Roe v. Wade should be retroactively applied and granted the writ. United States ex rel. Williams v. Preiser, 360 F. Supp. 667, 668 (S.D.N.Y. 1973). The State now appeals.

The State concedes that if the due process right to privacy or intimacy recognized in Roe is to be given retroactive effect, Dr. Williams' conviction is void. Texas State Penal Code Article 1194, found unconstitutional in Roe, was identical in purpose and effect to § 1050. See 410 U.S. at 117-118, n. 1. Miss Carr's abortion occurred during her first trimester, when "the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the State, that, in his medical judgment, the patient's pregnancy should be terminated." At 163. And this abortion was performed by "a physician currently licensed by the State." At 165. See Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 195, 199, 35 L. Ed. 2d 201, 93 S. Ct. 739.

In Vuitch v. Hardy, 473 F.2d 1370 (4 Cir. 1973), the Fourth Circuit affirmed per curiam the grant of habeas corpus because of the retroactive effect of Roe, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari. 414 U.S. 824, 94 S. Ct. 126, 38 L. Ed. 2d 57 (1973). Post-conviction relief was also granted a doctor on the basis of Roe in State v. Ingle, 18 Md. App. 514, 308 A.2d 223 (Court of Special Appeals of Maryland 1973).

New York stresses that Roe was a surprise holding and that retroactive application would disregard the justifiable reliance in 1966 that § 1050 always would be good law.*fn3 But a presumption of constitutionality is present in all state prosecutions, Robinson v. Neil, 409 U.S. 505, 509, 35 L. Ed. 2d 29, 93 S. Ct. 876 (1973), and is never enough by itself to bar habeas corpus for one restrained under the authority of a statute subsequently declared unconstitutional. Ex Parte Siebold, 100 U.S. 371, 25 L. Ed. 717 (1879).

Roe recognized a substantive right to privacy and forbids the State from regulating abortions such as the one Dr. Williams performed. The Supreme Court has stated, "No circumstances call more for the invocation of a rule of complete retroactivity." United States v. United States Coin and Currency, 401 U.S. 715, 724, 28 L. Ed. 2d 434, 91 S. Ct. 1041 (1971). See Prospective Overruling and Retroactive Application in the Federal Courts, 71 Yale L.J. 907 (1962).*fn4

If licensed physicians have a constitutional right to perform non-negligent, consensual abortions without fear of prosecution, Dr. Williams cannot remain deprived of liberty for having done so. Section 1050 is, "in legal contemplation, as inoperative as though it had never been passed." Norton v. Shelby County, 118 U.S. 425, 442, 30 L. Ed. 178, 6 S. Ct. 1121 (1886). This declaration of retroactive invalidity assures the supremacy of the newly recognized substantive right over a state's power to punish.*fn5 See Wechsler, Toward Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law, 73 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (1959).

The granting of the writ is ...

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