|United States Court for China
|Shanghai International Settlement
|June 30, 1906
|May 20, 1943
|United States Court for China
|Alternative Chinese name
|Shanghai American Court
The United States Court for China was a United States district court that had extraterritorial jurisdiction over U.S. citizens in China. It existed from 1906 to 1943 and had jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, with appeals taken to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco.
Extraterritorial jurisdiction in China was first granted to the United States by the Treaty of Wanghia upon ratification in 1845, followed by the Treaty of Tientsin ratified in 1860.
Under the treaties, cases against US citizens were tried in US consular courts, while cases against Chinese nationals were tried in Chinese courts. Consuls had jurisdiction in the following matters:
The commissioner had jurisdiction to hear all cases, and could prescribe rules of civil and criminal procedure for the consuls to follow.
The court was established in 1906 by the Act Creating a United States Court for China. The court was similar in structure to the British Supreme Court for China and Corea that had been established in Shanghai in 1865.
The court was originally headquartered in the American Consulate General building on Huangpu Road in the Shanghai International Settlement, with additional sessions held at least annually in the Chinese cities of Canton, Tientsin, and Hankow. The court moved with the US Consulate when the consulate was moved from its previous premises in the years 1911, 1930 and 1936.
The court had only one full-time judge, and those on trial sometimes had to wait months for proceedings. In the 1930s, the law was amended to allow the appointment of special judges, allowing trials to proceed in the judge's absence. Appeals were allowed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The U.S. consular courts in China retained limited jurisdiction, including civil cases where property involved in the controversy did not exceed $500 and criminal cases where the punishment did not exceed $100 in fines or 60 days' imprisonment. The Court exercised appellate jurisdiction over them, as well as, until 1910 when Japan annexed Korea, US Consular Courts in Korea.
The court's jurisdiction was given an expansive interpretation:
The sources of law drawn upon by the court were quite varied:
The question as to what constituted "common law" led to severe difficulties, because U.S. federal law did not cover many criminal offenses or civil matters (which were normally provided for by U.S. state law). The Ninth Circuit provided a solution to this conundrum in the case of Biddle v. United States, where it was held that the laws of the Territory of Alaska or the District of Columbia were federal law and could be applied by the court.[note 1] As a result, Judge Lobingier would later hold that "there can be no half way adoption of that doctrine; it includes all such laws or none. It cannot logically be restricted to any particular class of acts. It is just as applicable to civil laws as to criminal; just as 'necessary' in respect to corporations as to procedure."
The court prescribed its own rules for procedures to be followed. This was in contrast to the situation in the States, where civil procedure in actions at law (i.e., most lawsuits for monetary damages) in U.S. federal courts was normally provided for by state law, by virtue of the Conformity Act of 1872, until the promulgation of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in 1938.
The United States Congress also passed several statutes conferring specific powers on the court:
The act establishing the court provided: "The seal of the United States Court for China shall be the arms of the United States, engraved on a circular piece of steel of the size of a half dollar, with these words in the margin 'The Seal of the United States Court for China'". The seal was to be used to seal all writs, processes and other documents issued by the court.
People who received relatively short sentences for criminal offences were either imprisoned in the Consular Gaol in the consulate or in either Ward Road Gaol or Amoy Road Gaol, both run by the Shanghai Municipal Council. Those serving longer sentences were sent to Bilibid Prison in the Philippines and later from the 1920s were generally sent to the federal penitentiary at McNeil Island in Washington State to serve their sentence.
The United States Consulate and Court in Shanghai were occupied by the Japanese on December 8, 1941, at the beginning of the Pacific War. The Judge and other staff were interned for 6 months before being repatriated.
Americans continued to enjoy extraterritorial rights in those parts of China not occupied by the Japanese. On January 11, 1943, the U.S. and China signed the Treaty for Relinquishment of Extraterritorial Rights in China, thereby relinquishing all U.S. extraterritorial rights. The treaty was ratified by the United States Senate and came into force on May 20, 1943. As a result, both the U.S. Court for China and the U.S. Consular Courts in China were abolished. However, their judgments continued to serve as res judicata within China.
The last case before the court was heard in Kunming starting on 14 January 1943. Boatner Carney of the Flying Tigers was prosecuted for manslaughter before Special Judge Bertrand E. Johnson. Carney was convicted of unlawful killing and sentenced to two years imprisonment. He was pardoned 6 months later by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
|Lebbeus R. Wilfley
|Attorney and former Attorney General of the Philippines.
|Rufus Hildreth Thayer
|Lawyer, law clerk in the US Department of Treasury, assistant to the Librarian of Congress and former Advocate General of the District of Columbia National Guard
|Charles S. Lobingier
|Law professor, former Judge of the Philippines Court of First Instance and later member of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
|Milton D. Purdy
|Former city and county attorney, US Attorney and Assistant U.S. Attorney General
|Milton J. Helmick
|Former judge and Attorney General of New Mexico
Two individuals were also appointed Special Judges of the Court to try cases when the Judge was not available. They were:
The following attorneys of note were admitted to practice before the court: