As the only criminal trial ever conducted by the Supreme Court, this trial of a local sheriff for contempt demonstrated the Court’s authority and raised the question of whether the Sixth Amendment applied to the states. The trial, however, did not appear to establish any precedents.

On January 23, 1906, a violent rape occurred in the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although the evidence was weak, an African American man named Ed Johnson was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury on February 11. Arguing that the trial violated the principles of due process and equal protection, Johnson’s lawyer failed to obtain habeas corpus relief in the lower federal courts. He then appealed directly to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he had a personal conversation with Justice John Marshall HarlanHarlan, John Marshall;Shipp, United States v., who persuaded his colleagues on the Court to issue a stay of execution and to schedule oral arguments for the case.

The same evening that the stay was announced, an angry mob stormed the county jail and lynched Johnson on a city bridge. There was considerable evidence that the local sheriff, Joseph Shipp, and his deputies had known that the lynching would occur but did nothing to stop it. The attorney general filed charges of criminal contempt with the clerk of the Supreme Court. Following a hearing, Justice Oliver Wendell HolmesHolmes, Oliver Wendell;Shipp, United States v. announced that the justices unanimously agreed that the Court had jurisdiction to try Shipp and his deputies.

On February 12, 1907, the Shipp trial began in Chattanooga with the taking of evidence, and in March, 1909, the final arguments of the contending attorneys were presented before the Court in Washington, D.C. On May 24, 1909, Chief Justice Melville FullerFuller, Melville W.;Shipp, United States v. announced that the justices had voted six to three that the defendants were guilty. Shipp and two deputies were sentenced to three months imprisonment. Three other defendants were sentenced to terms of two months. After Shipp’s prison term was completed in January, 1910, he returned to Chattanooga to an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 supporters. In 2000, however, a county judge in Chattanooga overturned Ed Johnson’s conviction and death sentence.

Further Reading

  • Curriden, Mark, and Lelroy Phillips, Jr. Contempt of Court. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.


Fuller, Melville W.

Harlan, John Marshall

Holmes, Oliver Wendell

Sixth Amendment