Eisler v. United States

Citation338 U.S. 189,93 L.Ed. 1897,69 S.Ct. 1453
Decision Date27 June 1949
Docket NumberNo. 255,255
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. David Rein, Washington, D.C., Mr. Abraham J. Isserman, Los Angeles, Cal., for petitioner.

Mr. Philip B. Perlman, Solicitor General, Washington, D.C., for respondent.


Petitioner's flight from the country after the grant of his petition for writ of certiorari, 335 U.S. 857, 69 S.Ct. 130, and after the submission of his cause on the merits necessitates a decision as to the disposition now to be made of this case. Since the petitioner by his own volition may have rendered moot any judgment on the merits, we must, as a matter of our own practice, decide whether the submission should be set aside the the writ of certiorari dismissed or whether we should postpone review indefinitely by ordering the case removed from the docket, pending the return of the fugitive.

Our practice, however, has been to order such cases to be removed from the docket. Smith v. United States, 94 U.S. 97, 24 L.Ed. 32; Bonahan v. State of Nebraska, 125 U.S. 692, 8 S.Ct. 1390, 31 L.Ed. 854. We adhere to those precedents. Accordingly after this term the cause will be left off the docket until a direction to the contrary shall issue.

While Mr. Justice BURTON has not participated in the consideration of the merits of this case, he has participated in this procedural action based upon the memorandum filed by the United States of America calling the attention of the Court to the petitioner's flight from justice.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, dissenting.

The Government has brought to the Court's attention the circumstances which, in its view, have deprived the Court of jurisdiction to adjudicate this case. Accordingly the Government, by way of suggestion, has moved the Court for its dismissal. The motion should be granted for the following reasons:

1. Eisler was convicted for contempt of Congress by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and invoked the jurisdiction of this Court by a petition for certiorari filed August 31, 1948, seeking the determination of questions some of which at least we regarded as important enough to warrant review. We accordingly granted his petition. 335 U.S. 857, 69 S.Ct. 130. The case was argued March 28, 1949, and awaited only final disposition when, on May 6, 1949, the petitioner fled the United States. On May 13, the Attorney General requested the Secretary of State to make application through the usual diplomatic channels for the return of Eisler to the United States. That application was made, it was resisted by Eisler, and on May 27 the English court with final authority in such matters dismissed it on the ground that the crime for which Eisler's extradition was sought—the making of false statements in an application for an exit permit—was not extraditable. Since then Eisler has formally repudiated the jurisdiction of this country and has been elected to political office in a foreign country. The Attorney General has abandoned all attempts to secure his return. The upshot is that the abstract questions brought before the Court by Eisler are no longer attached to any litigant. No matter remains before us as to which we could issue process.

2. Very early after the Republic was founded it was confronted by an emergency in which its very existence was threatened. Serious questions touching the legal power of the President to deal with the crisis arose, and Washington sought answers to these legal questions from this Court. Even under circumstances so compelling the first Chief Justice and his Associates had to deny President Washington's request for aid because the Constitution gave this Court no power to give answers to legal questions as such but merely the authority to decide them when a litigant was before the Court. See 3 Johnston, Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay 486 (1891); 10 Sparks, Writings of George Washington 542 (1840). That recognition of the limited power of this Court has been unquestioned ever since 1793. It has been the principle by which cases formally before the Court have again and again been dismissed as beyond its jurisdiction. The circumstances which have called forth application of the principle have varied greatly, but all the instances of its application illustrate and confirm the basic limitation under which this Court functions, namely, that it can entertain a case and decide it only if there is a litigant before it against whom the Court may enforce its decision.

3. If legal questions brought by a litigant are to remain here, the litigant must stay with them. When he withdraws himself from the power of the Court to enforce its judgment, he also withdraws the questions which he had submitted to the Court's adjudication. The questions brought by Eisler have evaporated so far as the Court's power to deal with them is concerned because the rights and obligations of a litigant no longer depend on their answer. The Court therefore lacks jurisdiction as it lacked jurisdiction to answer Washington's questions. Not to dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction can only mean that the Court has jurisdiction and therefore must retain the case. And this, in turn, can only mean that the Court's eventual action must await the pleasure of Eisler and of every future litigant who, having invoked the Court's jurisdiction, withdraws himself beyond the means of asserting it. Eisler's political affiliation, of course, does not distinguish him from other litigants. It was irrelevant when the Court took his case at a time that it had jurisdiction over him; it is equally irrelevant to recognition of the fact that Eisler has put himself definitively beyond the Court's process were it to decide against him. Since the Court is without power effectively to decide against him, it is without power to decide at all. In short, the Court no longer has jurisdiction, and it would be equally without jurisdiction if Eisler were the Bourbon pretender.

4. This case has nothing in common with instances cited as precedent for leaving it off the docket until a direction to the contrary shall issue. Smith v. United States, 94 U.S. 97, 24 L.Ed. 32; Bonahan v. State of Nebraska, 125 U.S. 692, 8 S.Ct. 1390, 31 L.Ed. 854. In those cases convicts had broken jail while their cases were pending in this Court and remained at large. As a matter of practical good sense, apparently upon informal suggestion, the Court suspended disposition of the cases until it should receive word from the sheriff who reported the escape that a recapture had been accomplished. Such jailbreaks, indeed, as often as not imply a merely temporary separation from confinement. But whatever may be thought of such a light-reined way of dealing with a jailbreak from our local jails, the situation presented by this case is totally different. Here we have the most formal kind of resistance to the jurisdiction of this Court. It has been adjudicated successful, and the Attorney General has had to yield. Since the Court's power to reassert jurisdiction has been incontestably denied, the motion should be granted.


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