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Mississippi v. Johnson

The Court Says No

The Supreme Court denied the motion to consider the permanent injunction against the Reconstruction Act. The Court noted that bringing suit against a sitting president was unprecedented, and that was held against the plaintiffs. But the Court also relied on specific points of law in its decision.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Chase first looked at the issue of ministerial versus political duties. Executing the Reconstruction Act, he argued, was a political duty.

A ministerial duty . . . is one in respect to which nothing is open to discretion. It is a simple, definite duty, arising under conditions admitted or proved to exist, and imposed by law . . . Very different is the duty of the President in the exercise of power to see that the laws are faithfully executed, and among these laws the acts named in the bill . . . 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 . . . The duty thus imposed on the President is in no sense just ministerial. It is purely executive and political.

The Court did not examine the constitutionality of the Reconstruction Act, remarking that even if it were unconstitutional, the Court could not prevent the president from executing it. The Constitution, the Court reasoned, requires Congress to pass the laws, the president to execute them, and the Court to review them once they have been put into place. But the Court has no power to review a law before it is executed. The Court kept the separation of powers intact.

After the decision in Mississippi, President Johnson did carry out the Reconstruction Act. The Court again examined the law's constitutionality in 1868, when the state of Georgia filed a similar suit. The Court let the Radical Republicans carry out their brand of Reconstruction.

In a judicial sense, Mississippi helped shape the notion of executive immunity. The president was now immune from suits that tried to prevent him from carrying out a law--if it fell under his political duties. Eventually, presidential immunity was expanded, in Nixon v. Fitzgerald (1982). In that case, the Court ruled the president was immune from personal liability lawsuits for acts he performed while in office.

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