Woodson v. Fleck et al.

The citation for this case is 30 Fed. Cas. 537, Case No. 17,996. The case comes to us from the Circuit Court of the District of Virginia in May of 1870, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase as the Circuit Justice presiding. There was a riot in Harrisonburg, Virginia in the summer of 1865, and in the process of putting down the riot, the town sergeant arrested the plaintiff, Woodson. Woodson then sued, claiming the mayor and town sergeant had no authority to arrest him because the elected government of the town had ended when the state government in Richmond had ended with the end of the war. Woodson had been released by a magistrate and then brought a suit for malicious prosecution against the mayor, the town sergeant, and some members of the town council.

In setting up the facts of the case, the Chief Justice wrote, “Two of the defendants were members of the town council of Harrisonburg. The other was the sergeant of the corporation appointed by the council. The members of the council were elected during the war, while Harrisonburg was within the Confederate lines and under the control of the insurgent government of Virginia. The sergeant of the corporation was elected after all organized resistance to the national authority had ceased in Virginia, and after the state government, which had been organized at Wheeling, and recognized by the United States as the rightful government of Virginia, had been established in undisputed exercise of its authority at Richmond. This suit was brought by Woodson against certain members of the town council of Harrisonburg, and against the town sergeant, for malicious prosecution. The facts appear to be that he was arrested; that his ease was examined with reference to further proceedings; and that he was discharged by the justice of the peace who conducted the examination. The first question is, whether that arrest under the direction of the town council by the town sergeant was an act done in pursuance of any order of the officer in command of the district? We have been referred to general order No. 10, issued from the post head quarters on June 16, 1865, by the military officers then commanding the district in which Harrisonburg was situated.” [30 Fed. Cas. 537, 539]

In discussing the town council, Chase said, “It is to be borne in mind that the members of the common council of Harrisonburg had been elected to that office while the insurgent government of Virginia was in entire control of that portion of the state. When that government was dispersed by the superior force of the United States, the civil authorities did not necessarily cease at once to exist They continued in being de facto, charged with the duty of maintaining order until superseded by the regular government. Thus the common council of Harrisonburg remained charged with the government of the town, notwithstanding the temporary occupation of the place by the United States forces. Doubtless it might have been superseded. The government of the United States was not bound to recognize any authority which originated under the insurgent government. But it was not superseded. On the contrary, an order was issued, addressed to the citizens of Harrisonburg, Virginia, June 16, 1865, by which the citizens were notified ‘that the mayor and council of the corporation last in office, upon the resumption of their duties, will be sustained in all their acts consistent with existing laws and proclamations of the government.’ Upon the promulgation of this order the council which had suspended its meetings, resumed its functions. It appointed a town sergeant, who was duly qualified. Shortly afterwards a riot broke out in the town, and the defendants, especially the mayor and the town sergeant, were very active in quelling the disturbance. We have no means of judging how great or how dangerous the disturbance was. It had no connection with the military occupation, nor any relation to the authority of the United States. It was an ordinary riot, and the mayor and town sergeant busied themselves in suppressing it. In doing so they arrested rightfully or unrightfully Woodson, the plaintiff in this suit.” [30 Fed. Cas. 537, 539]

He next considers if the actions were in obedience to the orders of Harrrisonburg’s post commander: “Now, was that act done in pursuance of the order of the post commander? There was nothing in the order relating to any such matter. It was not addressed to the council. It did not require them to arrest anybody. It did not command them to suppress a riot It simply declared that the council would be sustained in its legitimate action as the town government. It would be going too far, we think, to regard this arrest as an act done in pursuance of an order of any officer of the United States. On the contrary, it seems to us to have been an act intended, at least, as an ordinary exercise of authority by the town council and town sergeant under the laws of Virginia.”

He then disposes of the case: “The courts of the United States have nothing to do with such matters. They are not constituted guardians of the public peace under state laws. On the contrary, these matters are left absolutely to the state courts. The state courts watch over personal rights and private security so far as these depend on state laws. Individuals who exercise local authority are responsible to them, and both are responsible to the people of Virginia. We think, therefore, that this is not a case within the description of the act of congress. We are clearly without jurisdiction of it, and must remand it to the circuit court from whence it came. A second question has been somewhat discussed, namely: Whether, if the order in question could be regarded as directed to the corporate authorities of Harrisonburg, and the arrest of Woodson as actually made under that order, the arrest so made would warrant the removal of Woodson’s suit for malicious prosecution into the United States court, after the restoration of the state government at Richmond, in the spring of 1865? But the view which we take of the first question in this case makes the present consideration of this point unnecessary.”

So Chase decided the Federal Court had no jurisdiction in the case and sent it back to the State courts.

Why should we be interested in this case? It’s another instance where the US Courts don’t recognize any authority the confederacy may have had, meaning the confederacy was an illegal organization, which itself means that unilateral secession had to be illegal; otherwise, the confederacy would have been legal and the United States Courts would have had to recognize confederate government acts. Finally, Chase, in this ruling, recognizes the Wheeling government as being the legitimate government of Virginia. That lends credence to the formation of West Virginia being a constitutional act, as permission for the formation was given by the Wheeling government.


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