State of Mississippi v. Johnson

The citation for this case is 71 US 475.

In reaction to the Reconstruction Acts, the State of Mississippi brought suit to keep Andrew Johnson and the US Government from enforcing those laws. As the introduction to the case tells us, “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.” [71 US 475]

The case provides the filing from the state: “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 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.” [71 US 475, 476-477] In this way, Mississippi claimed the Reconstruction Acts were unconstitutional.

Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase delivered the Court’s ruling. He said, “The single point which requires consideration is this: can the President be restrained by injunction from carrying into effect an act of Congress alleged to be unconstitutional? It is assumed by the counsel for the State of Mississippi that the President, in the execution of the Reconstruction Acts, is required to perform a mere ministerial duty. In this assumption there is, we think, a confounding of the terms ministerial and executive, which are by no means equivalent in import. A ministerial duty the performance of which may, in proper cases, be required of the head of a department by judicial process is one in respect to which nothing is left to discretion. It is a simple, definite duty, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist and imposed by law.” [71 US 475, 498]

Chase referenced the cases of Marbury v. Madison and Kendall v. Stockton and Stokes to help explain his ruling.

“In each of these cases, nothing was left to discretion. There was no room for the exercise of judgment. The law required the performance of a single specific act, and that performance, it was held, might be required by mandamus. Very different is the duty of the President in the exercise of the power to see that the laws are faithfully executed, and, among these laws, the acts named in the bill. By the first of these acts, he is required to assign generals to command in the several military districts, and to detail sufficient military force to enable such officers to discharge their duties under the law. By the supplementary act, other duties are imposed on the several commanding generals, and these duties must necessarily be performed under the supervision of the President as commander-in-chief. The duty thus imposed on the President is in no just sense ministerial. It is purely executive and political. An attempt on the part of the judicial department of the government to enforce the performance of such duties by the President might be justly characterized, in the language of Chief Justice Marshal, as ‘an absurd and excessive extravagance.’ ” [71 US 475, 499]

He tells us, “The Congress is the legislative department of the government; the President is the executive department. Neither can be restrained in its action by the judicial department, though the acts of both, when performed, are, in proper cases, subject to its cognizance.” [71 US 475, 500]

Chase goes on to say, “It is true that a State may file an original bill in this court. And it may be true, in some cases, that such a bill may be filed against the United States. But we are fully satisfied that this court has no jurisdiction of a bill to enjoin the President in the performance of his official duties; and that no such bill ought to be received by us. It has been suggested that the bill contains a prayer that, if the relief sought cannot be had against Andrew Johnson, as President, it may be granted against Andrew Johnson as a citizen of Tennessee. But it is plain that relief as against the execution of an act of Congress by Andrew Johnson is relief against its execution by the President. A bill praying an injunction against the execution of an act of Congress by the incumbent of the presidential office cannot be received, whether it describes him as President or as a citizen of a State.” [71 US 475, 501]

The Court denied Mississippi’s motion, and the execution of the Reconstruction Acts proceeded.


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