• Last updated on November 11, 2022

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.Separation of powers;McCardle, Ex parte[MacCardle, Ex parte]

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Shortly after the Court heard arguments in the McCardle case, Congress repealed the provision in the Habeas Corpus Act that had allowed McCardle’s appeal.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. ChaseChase, Salmon P.;McCardle, Ex parte[MacCardle, Ex parte] acknowledged Congress’s authority under Article III, and the case was therefore dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Chase wrote that it was unnecessary to inquire whether, absent the 1867 law, the Court might have exercised appellate jurisdiction according to other statutes, especially the Judiciary Act of 1789. By acquiescing, the Court avoided a direct constitutional confrontation. However, Chase interpreted the congressional repeal of 1868 very narrowly, which meant that it did not place significant limits on the Court’s future jurisdiction. Several months later, in Ex parte Yerger[case]Yerger, Ex parte[Yerger, Ex parte] (1869), the Court agreed to hear another challenge to military trials, this time under the 1789 statute.

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[case]Klein, United States v.[Klein, United States v.] (1872), the Court rejected a congressional attempt to restrict the Court’s jurisdiction in a case involving the president’s pardoning power.

Habeas corpus

Judicial powers

Judiciary Act of 1789

Milligan, Ex parte

Reconstruction

Separation of powers

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