The Supreme Court acquiesced to a congressional withdrawal of appellate jurisdiction in a case that threatened to bring down the Republican Party’s Reconstruction program.
Article III of the U.S. Constitution authorizes Congress to make exceptions and regulations concerning the Court’s appellate jurisdiction. Ex parte McCardle led to the Supreme Court’s most important decision involving this congressional power.
Following the Civil War (1861-1865), Congress enacted the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which imposed military rule over most of the Southern states. Under the statute, military tribunals were authorized to try civilians if they interfered with the Reconstruction governments. William McCardle, editor of the Vicksburg Times, was arrested and charged with publishing “incendiary and libelous articles.” Based on the Habeas Corpus Act of 1867, which had extended federal jurisdiction to anyone “restrained in violation of the Constitution,” McCardle appealed to the Supreme Court. He asserted that it was unconstitutional to try civilians in military tribunals when the civil courts were open and referred to Ex parte Milligan (1866).
Shortly after the Court heard arguments in the McCardle case, Congress repealed the provision in the Habeas Corpus Act that had allowed McCardle’s appeal. Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase
The McCardle precedent, which the Court never repudiated, left many unanswered questions about the potential power of Congress under Article III. Some experts believe that a determined Congress could remove the Court’s jurisdiction over controversial issues such as prayers in school. Others argue that congressional powers could never extend to limiting jurisdiction in cases involving fundamental constitutional rights. In United States v. Klein
Judiciary Act of 1789
Milligan, Ex parte
Separation of powers