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Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950)

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    Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950)


                The case of Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950) was an appeal to the US Supreme Court from the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia and was argued before the justices of the US Supreme Court on November 15, 1949.  The decision of the US Supreme Court was rendered on February 20, 1950. (Justia: US Supreme Court Center)  The question on appeal was whether or not a Georgia State Code which permits the Governor to determine whether or not a convict has become insane after his or her conviction and sentence was ultra virus the constitution.  The Appeal Court of Georgia ruled that the vesting of such discretionary power in the Governor was not unconstitutional. (Justia: US Supreme Court Center)  The Petitioner, Solesbee appealed to the US Supreme Court.


                The Supreme Court of Georgia found in the case of Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950) that Georgia Code Sections 27-2602 was constitutional and affirmed the earlier decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia. Georgia Code Sections 27-2602, provided the Governor with the authority to appoint medical doctors to examine a convict and make a declaration of sanity or otherwise. (Georgia Code Sections 27-2602)  Acting under this authority the Governor appointed three doctors who declared the Petitioner sane. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))

                The Petitioner filed a writ of habeas corpus maintaining that he was indeed insane and that he had been denied due process as constitutionally provided for by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution. (US Constitution, 14th Amendment)  The Petitioner had argued before the Supreme Court of Georgia and the lower courts of Georgia before that hearing that the 14th Amendment and the due process clause contained within its ambit required that his claim of insanity following his conviction and sentence was a matter  to be determined by “a judicial or administrative tribunal”. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))  Moreover, due process required that he be provided with proper notice and be permitted an opportunity to participate in the hearing by an administrative tribunal. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))  The Petitioner also argued that he was also entitle to be represented by council at such a hearing and to be provided with the opportunity to challenge witnesses via cross-examination.  The Petition also claimed that any such administrative hearing ought to be subject to judicial review.  The Court at first instance ruled that the Georgia Code Section 27-2602 did not offend the due process clause contained in the 14th Amendment.  The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the decision as did the US Supreme Court. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))


                The history of the case is only briefly explained by the US Supreme Court in the case of Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950).  Mr. Justice Black notes for the record that the petitioner had been convicted of murder in the State of Georgia following which he had been sentenced to death by execution.  At some stage following conviction and sentence the Petitioner had applied to the Governor for a postponement of this execution on the grounds that he had since being convicted and sentenced become insane.  These are the historical facts that give rise to the Governor invoking Georgia Code Section 27-2602 under which he found the petitioner to be sane. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))


                The issue throughout the appeals’ process was always whether or not the procedure laid out by Georgia Code Section 27-2602 for the determining if a condemned person was sane following conviction and sentence offended the due process ambit of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.  (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))  The relevant part of the 14th Amendment reads as follows:

    “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (US Constitution, 14th Amendment)

    The issue raised on appeal is whether or not the Georgia Code which effectively permits the deprivation of life or liberty without a hearing as such, violated this part of the 14th Amendment.  The US Supreme court has ruled and maintained that the purpose of the 14th Amendment was to prevent the State enacting “arbitrary state legislation, affecting life, liberty and property.” (Hibben v. Smith, 191 US, 310 (1903))       It is this concept of the due process clause that fuelled the Petitioner’s appeal in the Solesbee v Balcom case.

    The Court’s Decision

                The US Supreme Court ruled that the due process clause merely prevents a conviction and sentence without providing for a particular process to run its course.  Taken at its highest it merely prevents the execution of an insane person and by doing so does not prevent the State implementing a policy for determining whether or not the person who is sentenced is sane or not.  The determination of such a question is entirely discretionary and invokes medical rather than legal questions.  The discretion afforded the Governor who must consult with medical doctors cannot be said to give rise to a contravention of the due process clause contained in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))


                The US Supreme Court essentially ruled that the question of sanity post conviction and sentence is distinct from the pre-conviction stage where the defendant has not been convicted of any crime.  The issue of whether or not a convict is sane or not at the stage where he has already been convicted and sentenced is no more than a procedure calculated to postpone a sentenced that has already followed due process. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))  In this regard the procedure for determining the sanity of a convicted person is not different from a procedure for a pardon or clemency as the case may be. (Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950))


                The court’s rationale was fair and reasonable.  The petitioner had already been found to have committed the crimes for which he had been sentenced.  Therefore, due process had already run its course.  If there was evidence that the defendant’s insanity had been present at the time of the offence then it would have required revisiting the merits of the case.  However, this was not the case and the issue of insanity only came up with respect to the Petitioner’s state of mind following his conviction.  As such, he was not seeking to set aside the sentence but to merely have it postponed.  Therefore the only question was whether or not he was entitled to such postponement on the grounds sited, insanity.  As this was purely a matter for the Governor’s discretion, rather than a finding on the substantive issues of the case giving rise to the conviction and sentence, the US Supreme Court’s approach was entirely appropriate.  The application for a postponement was therefore no different than an application for pardon.


    Georgia Code Sections 27-2602

    Hibben v. Smith, 191 US, 310 (1903)

    Justia: US Supreme Court Center.(n.d.) Available online at:  Retrieved August 10, 2008

    Solesbee v Balcom, 339 US (1950)

    US Constitution

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