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Mississippi v. Johnson

Significance

The Court refused to limit a president's power to carry out the laws passed by Congress, keeping the separation of powers intact. By not ruling on the Reconstruction Act, the Court let stand the voting rights given to newly freed slaves. The ruling also helped define the executive's immunity from lawsuits designed to limit its political duties.

Before Mississippi v. Johnson, an acting president had never been named as an individual defendant in a case heard before the Supreme Court. But the case arose during a uniquely difficult time in American history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the country was trying to heal itself and address the issues raised by the end of slavery. Collectively, the political programs implemented to restore order and rebuild the country were called Reconstruction.

In some ways, Reconstruction still pitted North against South, though now the battle was fought with words and laws, not cannons, and the victorious North held the clear advantage. Following the lead of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson tried to make Reconstruction a conciliatory process. But by 1867, a faction in Congress known as the Radical Republicans had taken control of Reconstruction. Many of these Republicans had been strong abolitionists before the war. Now, their primary concern was asserting control over the beaten Confederacy and establishing the rights of the South's newly freed slaves.

The Reconstruction Act of 1867 was one of the Radical Republicans first major legislative programs. The act divided the old Confederacy into five regions, each ruled by a military governor, with military courts to hear civil matters. As a condition for reentering the Union, the Southern states were also required under the act to draft new constitutions that gave African Americans the right to vote. (The law, however, did not extend that right to Northern blacks.)

The Reconstruction Act threw the South into an uproar. Within a month of the bill's passage, the state of Mississippi charged the act was blatantly unconstitutional. The state asked the Supreme Court to impose a permanent injunction preventing President Johnson and the area's military governor, Edward O. C. Ord, from executing the law.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Mississippi v. Johnson - Significance, The Case Against Johnson And The Reconstruction Act, The Court Says No, Salmon Portland Chase