SUPREME COURT U.S.
[United States v. Hudson, 7 Cranch 32
THE UNITED STATES
HUDSON AND GOODWIN
Absent ... Washington, Justice
[Syllabus:] The courts of the U. States have no common law jurisdiction in
cases of libel against the government of the United States. But they have the
power to fine for contempts, to imprison for contumacy, and to enforce the
observance of their orders, &c.
THIS was a case certified from the Circuit Court for the District of
Connecticut, in which, upon argument of a general demurrer to an
indictment for a libel on the President and Congress of the United
States, contained in the Connecticut Currant, of the 7th of May, 1806,
charging them with having in secret voted two millions of dollars as a present
to Bonaparte for leave to make a treaty with Spain, the judges of that court
were divided in opinion upon the question, whether the Circuit Court of the
United States had a common law jurisdiction in cases of libel.
PINKNEY, Attorney General, in behalf of the United
States, and DANA for the Defendants, declined arguing
The Court, having taken time to consider, the following opinion was
delivered (on the last day of the term, all the judges being present) by JOHNSON, J.
The only question which this case presents is, whether the Circuit Courts of
the United States can exercise a common law jurisdiction in criminal cases. We
state it thus broadly because a decision on a case of libel will apply to every
case in which jurisdiction is not vested in those courts by statute.
Although this question is brought up now for the first time to be decided by
this Court, we consider it as having been long since settled in public opinion.
In no other case for many years has this jurisdiction been asserted; and the
general acquiescence of legal men shews the prevalence of opinion in favor of
the negative of the proposition.
The course of reasoning which leads to this conclusion is simple, obvious,
and admits of but little illustration. The powers of the general Government are
made up of concessions from the several states — whatever is not expressly
given to the former, the latter expressly reserve. The judicial power of the
United States is a constituent part of those concessions — that power is
to be exercised by Courts organized for the purpose, and brought into existence
by an effort of the legislative powers of the Union. Of all the Courts which
the United States may, under their general powers, constitute, one only, the
Supreme Court, possesses jurisdiction derived immediately from the
constitution, and of which the legislative power cannot deprive it. All other
Courts created by the general Government possess no jurisdiction but what is
given them by the power that creates them, and can be vested with none but what
the power ceded to the general Government will authorize them to confer.
It is not necessary to inquire whether the general Government, in any and
what extent, possesses the power of conferring on its Courts a jurisdiction in
cases similar to the present; it is enough that such jurisdiction has not been
conferred by any legislative act, if it does not result to those Courts as a
consequence of their creation.
And such is the opinion of the majority of the Court: For, the power which
congress possess to create Courts of inferior jurisdiction, necessarily implies
the power to limit the jurisdiction of those Courts to particular objects; and
when a Court is created, and its operations confined to certain specific
objects, with what propriety can it assume to itself a jurisdiction — much
more extended — in its nature very indefinite — applicable to a great
variety of subjects — varying in every state in the Union — and with
regard to which there exists no definite criterion of distribution between the
district and Circuit Courts of the same district?
The only ground on which it has ever been contended that this jurisdiction
could be maintained is, that, upon the formation of any political body, an
implied power to preserve its own existence and promote the end and object of
its creation, necessarily results to it. But without examining how far this
consideration is applicable to the peculiar character of our constitution, it
may be remarked that it is a principle by no means peculiar to the common law.
It is coeval, probably, with the first formation of a limited Government;
belongs to a system of universal law, and may as well support the assumption of
many other powers as those more peculiarly acknowledged by the common law of
But if admitted as applicable to the state of things in this country, the
consequence would not result from it which is here contended for. If it may
communicate certain implied powers to the general Government, it would not
follow that the Courts of that Government are vested with jurisdiction over any
particular act done by an individual in supposed violation of the peace and
dignity of the sovereign power. The legislative authority of the Union must
first make an act a crime, affix a punishment for it, and declare the Court
that shall have jurisdiction of the offence.
Certain implied powers must necessarily result to our Courts of justice from
the nature of their institution. But jurisdiction of crimes against the state
is not among those powers. To fine for contempt — imprison for contumacy
— inforce the observance of order, &c. are powers which cannot be
dispensed with in a Court, because they are necessary to the exercise of all
others: and so far our Courts no doubt possess powers not immediately derived
from statute; but all exercise of criminal jurisdiction in common law cases we
are of opinion is not within their implied powers.
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