71 U.S. 475 (1867), State Of Mississippi v. Johnson

Citation:71 U.S. 475, 18 L.Ed. 437
Case Date:April 15, 1867
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 475

71 U.S. 475 (1867)

18 L.Ed. 437




United States Supreme Court.

April 15, 1867

THIS was a motion made by Messrs. Sharkey and R. J. Walker, on behalf of the State of Mississippi, for leave to file a bill in the name of the State praying this court perpetually to enjoin and restrain Andrew Johnson, a citizen of the State of Tennessee and President of the United States, and his officers and agents appointed for that purpose, and especially E. O. C. Ord, assigned as military commander of the district where the State of Mississippi is, from executing or in any manner carrying out two acts of Congress named in the bill, one 'An act for the more efficient government of the rebel States,' passed March 2d, 1867, notwithstanding the President's veto of it as unconstitutional, and the other an act supplementary to it, passed in the same way March 23d, 1867; acts commonly called the Reconstruction Acts.

The former of these acts, reciting that no legal State governments or adequate protection for life or property now exists in the rebel States of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Arkansas, and that it was necessary that peace and good order should be enforced in them until loyal and republican State governments could be legally established, divided the States named into five military districts, and made it the duty of the President to assign to each one an officer of the army, and to detail a sufficient military force to enable him to perform his duties and enforce his authority within his district. It made it the duty of this officer to protect all persons in their rights, to suppress insurrection, disorder, violence, and to punish, or cause to be punished, all disturbers of the public peace and criminals, either through the local civil tribunals or through military

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commissions, which the act authorized. It provided, further, that on the formation of new constitutions and certain conditions which the act prescribed, the States respectively should be declared entitled to representation in Congress and the preceding part of the act become inoperative; and that until they were so admitted any civil governments which might exist in them should be deemed provisional only, and subject to the paramount authority of the United States, at any time to abolish, modify, control, or supersede it.

The second of the two acts related chiefly to the registration of voters who were to form the new constitutions of the States in question.

The bill set out the political history of Mississippi so far as related to its having become one of the United States; and 'that forever after it was impossible for her people, or for the State in its corporate capacity, to dissolve that connection with the other States, and that any attempt to do so by secession or otherwise was a nullity;' and she 'now solemnly asserted that her connection with the Federal government was not in anywise thereby destroyed or impaired;' and she averred and charged 'that the Congress of the United States cannot constitutionally expel her from the Union, and that any attempt which practically does so is a nullity.'

The bill then went on:

'The acts in question annihilate the State and its government, by assuming for Congress the power to control, modify, and even abolish its government--in short, to exert sovereign power over it--and the utter destruction of the State must be the consequence of their execution. They also violate a well-known salutary principle in governments, the observance of which can alone preserve them, by making the civil power subordinate to the military power, and thus establish a military rule over the States enumerated in the act, and make a precedent by which the government of the United States may be converted into a military despotism, in which every man may be deprived of his goods, lands, liberty, and life, by the breath

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of a military commander, or the sentence of the military commission or tribunal, without the benefit of trial by jury, and without the observance of any of those requirements and guarantees by which the Constitution and laws so plainly protect and guard the rights of the citizen. And the more effectually to accomplish this purpose the said acts divide the ten Southern States into five military districts, and make it the duty of the President to assign an officer to the command of each district, and to place a sufficient force under him, whose will is to be the law and his soldiers the power that executes it. It is declared to be his duty to protect all persons in their rights of person and property; to suppress insurrections, disorder, and violence; and to punish, or cause to be punished, all disturbers of the peace and criminals; and he may organize military commissions and tribunals to try offenders when he may think proper. But, by what rule or law is he to judge of the rights of person or property? By what rule or law is he to arrest, try, and punish criminals? By what rule or law is he to judge whether they have committed crimes? The answer to these questions is plain,--by his own will; for, though he may adopt the State authorities as his instruments if he will, yet he may reject them if he will. A scope of power so broad, so comprehensive, was never before vested in a military commander in any government which guards the rights of its citizens or subjects by law. It embraces necessarily all those subjects over which the States reserved the power to legislate for themselves, as essential to their existence as States, including the domestic relations, all the rights of property, real and personal; the rights of personal security and personal liberty; and assumes the right to control the whole of the domestic concerns of the State. These acts also provide that the governments now existing in the Southern States are but provisional governments, subject to the paramount authority of Congress, which may at any time abolish, modify, control, or supersede them.'

It then charged that, from information and belief, the said Andrew Johnson, President, in violation of the Constitution, and in violation of the sacred rights of the States, would proceed, notwithstanding his vetoes, and as a mere ministerial duty, to the execution of said acts, as though they

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were the law of the land, which the vetoes prove he would not do if he had any discretion, or that in doing so he performed anything more than a mere ministerial duty; and that with the view to the execution of said acts he had assigned General E. O. C. Ord to the command of the States of Mississippi and Arkansas.

Upon an intimation made a few days before by Mr. Sharkey, of his desire to file this bill, the Attorney-General objected to it in limine, as containing matter not fit to be received. The Chief Justice then stated that while as a general thing a motion to file a bill was granted as of course, yet if it was suggested that the bill contained scandalous or impertinent matter, or was in other respects improper to be received, the court would either examine the bill or refer it to a master for examination. The only matter, therefore, which would now be considered was the question of leave to file the bill.


Messrs. Sharkey, R. J. Walker, and Garland, by briefs filed:

Can the President of the United States be made a party defendant to this bill? There is no precedent directly to the point. Yet it is believed the question has been virtually settled. It is important, in this connection, to mark the distinction between what are called political powers and such as are ministerial. In the exercise of discretionary or political powers, courts will not undertake to control the action of officers; but not so with regard to ministerial duties, in the exercise of which no one is above the law, however exalted his position. Fortunately, we have neither a king nor an emperor, nor a parliament, who are omnipotent or above the Constitution.

Our Constitution declares that 'the judicial power shall extend to all cases in law and equity arising under this Constitution,' &c. And thus the judiciary are made the guardians and protectors of the Constitution.

The President is but the creature of the Constitution, one of the agencies created by it to carry it into practical operation;

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and it would be strange if he should be permitted to exert his agency in violating that instrument, and then claim exemption from the process of the court whose duty it is to guard it against abuses, because he is the chief executive officer of the government, and especially when he is exerting a mere ministerial duty; for that is all he does exert in executing an act of Congress; he has no discretion in the matter. The Constitution makes no distinction as to parties. The case is the criterion, no matter who is plaintiff or who defendant; and if the President be exempt from the process of the law, he is above the law. On the trial of Aaron Burr, an application was made for a subpoenæ duces tecum, to be directed to the President of the United States; and the application was resisted on the ground that the President was not amenable to the process of the court, and could not be drawn from the discharge of his duties at the seat of government, and made to attend the court sitting at Richmond. But Chief Justice Marshall, who tried the case, drew the distinction between the President and the King of England, and held that all officers in this country were subordinate to the law, and must obey its mandate, and, therefore, sustained the application. There, the subpoenæ duces tecum was only a command to the President to do a particular thing. Here, the injunction asked for is but a command to him not to do a particular thing under a void authority. The principle is the same in the two cases, as...

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