Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Landmark in Habeas Corpus and Criminal Contempt

In case you missed it, the June issue of the American Bar Association Journal ran a lengthy story by Mark Curriden , "'A Supreme Case of Contempt," which treats a landmark in federal habeas corpus law and produced a criminal trial in the U.S. Supreme Court, United States v. Shipp (1909). The article commences:

The case was United States v. Shipp. There were nine defendants, all charged with contempt of court—contempt of the Supreme Court, that is. The U.S. attorney general had filed the charges against them directly with the court, thus giving it original jurisdiction in the matter. The petition alleged that the defendants and other people engaged in actions “with the intent to show their contempt and disregard for the orders of this honorable court ... and for the purpose of preventing Ed Johnson from exercising and enjoying a right secured to him by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

It was a full-blown trial. There were special prosecutors, dozens of witnesses and a special mas­ter assigned to take the evidence. The trial rec­ord exceeded 2,200 pages. Each side was given a full day of oral argument before the justices.

Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller, who normally encouraged his colleagues to write the court’s opin­ions, decided that the importance of this case demanded that he take on the responsibility. Before reading the opinion that accompanied their verdict, Fuller—in his typically soft, almost inaudible voice —noted to a packed courtroom that the Supreme Court had entered new territory for which there was no precedent.

A hundred years later, United States v. Shipp has faded into the haze of precedent and history, but le­gal historians say its impact remains undiminished. Shipp has been cited as the genesis of federal ha­be­as corpus actions in state criminal cases. The case also was a pivotal turning point in asserting the importance of the rule of law and the need for an independent judiciary.


Update: I might have mentioned that Curriden, with his co-author Leroy Phillips Jr., published a book about the case a decade ago, Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism (1999).