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Ex Parte McCardle

Congress Denies Mccardle Access To Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is the only federal court specifically provided for by the Constitution. Under Article III, section 2, the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction, meaning sole authority, only in "Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be Party." In all other cases, the Supreme Court has jurisdiction only on appeal from such federal courts as Congress may decide to create and from such state supreme courts. This appellate jurisdiction is expressly subject to "such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make."

On 24 September 1789, Congress passed the Judiciary Act, which was the basis for the federal court system and gave the Supreme Court various appellate powers. On 5 February 1867, Congress amended the Judiciary Act to enabled the Supreme Court to hear appeals in habeas corpus cases. It was precisely this amendment, called the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867, that enable the Court to hear the McCardle case.

The Radical Republicans who controlled Congress feared that the McCardle case would give the Court an excuse to overturn Reconstruction legislation and end martial law in the South. Therefore, on 27 March 1868, Congress passed a law repealing the appeal provisions of the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867:

And be it further enacted, That so much of the act approved February 5, 1867, entitled, `An act to amend an act to establish the judicial courts of the United States, approved September 24, 1789,' as authorized an appeal from the judgment of the Circuit Court to the Supreme Court of the United States, or the exercise of any such jurisdiction by said Supreme Court, on appeals which have been, or may hereafter be taken, be, and the same is hereby repealed.

The case came before the Supreme Court during the 1868 December term. The hearing focused on the effect of Congress' repeal of the Court's jurisdiction. If the Court did not have jurisdiction, the validity or invalidity of McCardle's imprisonment was irrelevant. Sharkey argued that Congress' action was unconstitutional because it was designed solely to affect the McCardle case:

Its language is general, but, as was universally known, its purpose was specific. If Congress had specifically enacted `that the Supreme Court of the United States shall never publicly give judgment in the case of McCardle, already argued, and on which we anticipate that it will soon deliver judgment, contrary to the views of the majority in Congress, of what it ought to decide,' its purpose to interfere specifically with and prevent the judgment in this very case would not have been more real or, as a fact, more universally known.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Ex Parte McCardle - Significance, Congress Denies Mccardle Access To Supreme Court, Congress Could Not Be Denied, Reconstruction