Commonwealth v. Kipnis (Pa. Quar. Sess. 1917): Swearing Oaths in Court

Holding: For an oath to be legally valid, the person who is sworn must be aware that his statement is a solemn appeal to a Supreme Being, believe that what he declares is true, and include some corporal act, such as an uplifted hand or a hand placed upon scripture.

Procedural posture: Defendant moved to quash the return of Magistrate Robert Carson. Islamic law is not directly relevant, except the Court notes that “a Mohammedan [is sworn] upon the Koran” when taking an oath in court.

Judgment: Motion to quash the return of the magistrate denied in an opinion authored by Judge Staake.

Facts: Magistrate Robert Carson left his own district and entered another for the purpose of holding a bail hearing for the defendant, who was charged with a violation of the act of assembly. The defendant contended that state law prohibited the magistrate from acting outside of his own district, and that he had no authority to hold a hearing there. The defendant also argued that the oath administered to the complainant, upon which the arrest warrant was based, was not properly administered because it was not sworn upon the Bible and was not repeated verbatim with an upraised hand. The Philadelphia County Court of Quarter Sessions found that the magistrate performed a “purely ministerial act” in holding a hearing simply to fix bail, and that such ministerial functions could be performed outside of his district. With regard to the oath, the Court found that an oath need not be recited verbatim for it to be valid. Rather, the witness must recognize that he is solemnly being sworn and do some corporal act in appealing to God about the truth of his testimony. It may be administered “in any mode peculiar to the belief of the person sworn, or in any form binding on his conscience.” The Court notes that Jews can be sworn upon the Pentateuch and Muslims upon the Qurʾān, and that there is even a special procedure for “the Chinaman.” Therefore, the Court concluded, because the complainant’s oath was administered solemnly with a corporal act, the oath was valid.

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