Georgia v. Stanton

The citation for this case is 73 US [6 Wall.] 50.

This is a case out of Reconstruction where Georgia challenged the constitutionality of the Reconstruction Acts and sought to keep Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant, and Third Military District Commander Major General John Pope from enforcing those acts. Georgia filed the bill on April 15, 1867, and the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction.

According to the Court’s ruling, “The bill set forth the existence of the State of Georgia, the complainant, as one of the states of this Union under the Constitution; the civil war of 1861-1865 in which she was involved; the surrender of the Confederate armies in the latter year and submission to the Constitution and laws of the Union; the withdrawal of the military government from Georgia by the President, commander-in-chief of the army; and the revival and reorganization of the civil government of the state with his permission; and that the government thus reorganized was in the possession and enjoyment of all the rights and privileges in her several departments — executive, legislative, and judicial — belonging to a state in the Union under the Constitution, with the exception of a representation in the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States. It set forth further that the intent and design of the acts of Congress, as was apparent on their face and by their terms, was to overthrow and to annul this existing state government and to erect another and different government in its place, unauthorized by the Constitution and in defiance of its guarantees, and that, in furtherance of this intent and design, the defendants (the Secretary of War, the General of the Army, and Major General Pope), acting under orders of the President, were about setting in motion a portion of the army to take military possession of the state, and threatened to subvert her government and to subject her people to military rule; that the state was wholly inadequate to resist the power and force of the Executive Department of the United States. She therefore insisted that such protection could and ought to be afforded by a decree, or order, of this Court in the premises.” [73 US 50, 52]

Georgia’s suit sought to prevent Stanton, Grant, and Pope:

“1. From issuing any order or doing or permitting any act or thing within or concerning the State of Georgia which was or might be directed or required of them or any of them by or under the two acts of Congress.

2. From causing to be made any registration within the state as specified and prescribed in the last of the aforesaid acts.

3. From administering or causing to be administered within the state the oath or affirmation prescribed in said act.

4. From holding or causing to be held within the state any such election or elections or causing to be made any return of any such elections for the purpose of ascertaining the result of the same according to said act.

5. From holding or causing to be held within the state any such convention as is prescribed therein.” [73 US 50, 53]

The Court made its decision on February 10, 1868 with Justice Samuel Nelson delivering the opinion.

According to Nelson, “That these matters, both as stated in the body of the bill and in the prayers for relief, call for the judgment of the court upon political questions and upon rights not of persons or property but of a political character will hardly be denied. For the rights for the protection of which our authority is invoked are the rights of sovereignty, of political jurisdiction, of government, of corporate existence as a state, with all its constitutional powers and privileges. No case of private rights or private property infringed or in danger of actual or threatened infringement is presented by the bill in a judicial form for the judgment of the Court. It is true, the bill, in setting forth the political rights of the state and of its people to be protected, among other matters, avers, that Georgia owns certain real estate and buildings therein, state capitol, and executive mansion, and other real and personal property, and that putting the acts of Congress into execution and destroying the state would deprive it of the possession and enjoyment of its property. But it is apparent that this reference to property and statement concerning it are only by way of showing one of the grievances resulting from the threatened destruction of the state and in aggravation of it, not as a specific ground of relief. This matter of property is neither stated as an independent ground nor is it noticed at all in the prayers for relief. Indeed, the case as made in the bill would have stopped far short of the relief sought by the state, and its main purpose and design given up, by restraining its remedial effect simply to the protection of the title and possession of its property. Such relief would have called for a very different bill from the one before us.” [73 US 50, 77]

In ruling this was a political question, then, Nelson concluded the Court had no jurisdiction in the case, and he dismissed the suit. This paved the way for Congressional Reconstruction to continue unabated.


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