339 U.S. 763 (1950), 306, Johnson v. Eisentrager

Docket NºNo. 306
Citation339 U.S. 763, 70 S.Ct. 936, 94 L.Ed. 1255
Party NameJohnson v. Eisentrager
Case DateJune 05, 1950
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 763

339 U.S. 763 (1950)

70 S.Ct. 936, 94 L.Ed. 1255




No. 306

United States Supreme Court

June 5, 1950

Argued April 17, 1950




Respondents, who are nonresident enemy aliens, were captured in China by the United States Army and tried and convicted in China by an American military commission for violations of the laws of war committed in China prior to their capture. They were transported to the American-occupied part of Germany and imprisoned there in the custody of the Army. At no time were they within the territorial jurisdiction of any American civil court. Claiming that their trial, conviction, and imprisonment violated Articles I and III, the Fifth Amendment, and other provisions of our Constitution, laws of the United States, and provisions of the Geneva Convention, they petitioned the District Court for the District of Columbia for a writ of habeas corpus directed to the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army, and several officers of the Army having directive power over their custodian.


1. A nonresident enemy alien has no access to our courts in wartime. Pp. 768-777.

(a) Our law does not abolish inherent distinctions recognized throughout the civilized world between citizens and aliens, nor between aliens of friendly and enemy allegiance, nor between resident enemy aliens who have submitted themselves to our laws and nonresident enemy aliens who at all times have remained with, and adhered to, enemy governments. P. 769.

(b) In extending certain constitutional protections to resident aliens, this Court has been careful to point out that it was the aliens' presence within its territorial jurisdiction that gave the Judiciary power to act. P. 771.

(c) Executive power over enemy aliens, undelayed and unhampered by litigation, has been deemed, throughout our history, essential to wartime security. P. 774.

(d) A resident enemy alien is constitutionally subject to summary arrest, internment, and deportation whenever a "declared war" exists. Courts will entertain his plea for freedom from executive custody only to ascertain the existence of a state of war and

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whether he is an alien enemy. Once these jurisdictional facts have been determined, courts will not inquire into any other issue as to his internment. P. 775.

(e) A nonresident enemy alien, especially one who has remained in the service of the enemy, does not have even this qualified access to our courts. P. 776.

2. These nonresident enemy aliens, captured and imprisoned abroad, have no right to a writ of habeas corpus in a court of the United States. Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1; In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1, distinguished. Pp. 777-781.

3. The Constitution does not confer a right of personal security or an immunity from military trial and punishment upon an alien enemy engaged in the hostile service of a government at war with the United States. Pp. 781-785.

(a) The term "any person" in the Fifth Amendment does not extend its protection to alien enemies everywhere in the world engaged in hostilities against us. Pp. 782-783.

(b) The claim asserted by respondents and sustained by the court below would, in practical effect, amount to a right not to be tried at all for an offense against our armed forces. P. 782.

4. The petition in this case alleges no fact showing lack of jurisdiction in the military authorities to accuse, try, and condemn these prisoners, or that they acted in excess of their lawful powers. Pp. 785-790.

(a) The jurisdiction of military authorities, during or following hostilities, to punish those guilty of offenses against the laws of war is long established. P. 786.

(b) It being within the jurisdiction of a military commission to try these prisoners, it was for it to determine whether the laws of war applied, and whether they had been violated. Pp. 786-788.

(c) It is not the function of the Judiciary to entertain private litigation -- even by a citizen -- which challenges the legality, wisdom, or propriety of the Commander in Chief in sending our armed forces abroad or to any particular region. P. 789.

(d) Nothing in the Geneva Convention makes these prisoners immune from prosecution or punishment for war crimes. P. 789.

(e) Article 60 of the Geneva Convention, requiring that notice of trial of prisoners of war be given to the protecting power, is inapplicable to trials for war crimes committed before capture. Pp. 789-790.

(f) Article 63 of the Geneva Convention, requiring trial of prisoners of war "by the same courts and according to the same

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procedure as in the case of persons belonging to the armed forces of the detaining Power," is likewise inapplicable to trials for war crimes committed before capture. P. 790.

5. Since there is no basis in this case for invoking federal judicial power, it is not necessary to decide where, if the case were otherwise, the petition should be filed. Pp. 790-791.

84 U.S.App.D.C. 396, 14 F.2d 961, reversed.

The District Court dismissed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to inquire into the confinement of respondents by the United States Army in occupied Germany. The Court of Appeals reversed. 84 U.S.App.D.C. 396, 174 F.2d 961. This Court granted certiorari. 338 U.S. 877. Reversed, p. 791.

JACKSON, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

The ultimate question in this case is one of jurisdiction of civil courts of the United States vis-a -vis military authorities in dealing with enemy aliens overseas. The issues come here in this way:

Twenty-one German nationals petitioned the District Court of the District of Columbia for writs of habeas corpus. They alleged that, prior to May 8, 1945, they were in service of German armed forces in China. They amended to allege that their employment there was by civilian agencies of the German Government. Their exact affiliation is disputed, and, for our purposes, immaterial. On May 8, 1945, the German High Command

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executed an act of unconditional surrender, expressly obligating all forces under German control at once to cease active hostilities. These prisoners have been convicted of violating laws of war by engaging in, permitting, or ordering continued military activity against the United States after surrender of Germany and before surrender of Japan. Their hostile operations consisted principally of collecting and furnishing intelligence concerning American forces and their movements to the Japanese armed forces. They, with six others who were acquitted, were taken into custody by the United States Army after the Japanese surrender, and were tried and convicted by a Military Commission constituted by our Commanding General at Nanking by delegation from the Commanding General, United States Forces, China Theater, pursuant to authority specifically granted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States. The Commission sat in China, with express consent of the Chinese Government. The proceeding was conducted wholly under American auspices, and involved no international participation. After conviction, the sentences were duly reviewed and, with immaterial modification, approved by military reviewing authority.

The prisoners were repatriated to Germany to serve their sentences. Their immediate custodian is Commandant of Landsberg Prison, an American Army officer under the Commending General, Third United States Army, and the Commanding General, European Command. He could not be reached by process from [70 S.Ct. 938] the District Court. Respondents named in the petition are Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Army, Chief of Staff of the Army, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States.

The petition alleges, and respondents denied, that the jailer is subject to their direction. The Court of Appeals assumed, and we do likewise, that, while prisoners are

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in immediate physical custody of an officer or officers not parties to the proceeding, respondents named in the petition have lawful authority to effect that release.

The petition prays an order that the prisoners be produced before the District Court, that it may inquire into their confinement and order them discharged from such offenses and confinement. It is claimed that their trial, conviction, and imprisonment violate Articles I and III of the Constitution, and the Fifth Amendment thereto, and other provisions of the Constitution and laws of the United States and provisions of the Geneva Convention governing treatment of prisoners of war.

A rule to show cause issued, to which the United States made return. Thereupon the petition was dismissed on authority of Ahrens v. Clark, 335 U.S. 188.

The Court of Appeals reversed and, reinstating the petition, remanded for further proceedings. 84 U.S.App.D.C. 396, 174 F.2d 961. It concluded that any person, including an enemy alien, deprived of his liberty anywhere under any purported authority of the United States is entitled to the writ if he can show that extension to his cases of any constitutional rights or limitations would show his imprisonment illegal; that, although no statutory jurisdiction of such cases is given, courts must be held to possess it as part of the judicial power of the United States; that, where deprivation of liberty by an official act occurs outside the territorial jurisdiction of any District Court, the petition will lie in the District Court which has territorial jurisdiction over officials who have directive power over the immediate jailer.

The obvious importance of these holdings to both judicial administration and military operations impelled us to grant certiorari. 338 U.S. 877. The case is before us only on issues of law. The writ of habeas corpus must be granted "unless it appears from the application" that the applicants are not entitled to it....

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