Debs, In Re

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158 U.S. 564 (1895), argued 25–26 Mar. 1895, decided 27 May 1895 by vote of 9 to 0; Brewer for the Court. By refusing to grant a writ of habeas corpus to Eugene Debs, president of the American Railway Union, the Supreme Court sanctioned the use of injunctions against striking labor unions. During the depression of the 1890s, the Pullman company, while still paying dividends, reduced its workers’ pay literally to the starvation level. The laborers went on strike and were soon adopted by the newly formed American Railway Union. The union pursued a strategy of boycotting railroads using Pullman cars. Members refused to handle trains with the cars; if dismissed by the road, then all the company's union members would strike. This plan was a direct challenge to the General Managers Association, a group of twenty-six Chicago railroads. Claiming that their contracts required them to use Pullman cars, they provoked strikes throughout the Midwest and nation by firing trainmen who refused to handle Pullman cars. Contending that the strikers were interfering with interstate commerce and the mails, the association urged federal intervention. Attorney General Richard Olney, fearing the violence of a large strike, came to the association's aid. While wanting to send in the army, Olney settled initially for lesser measures. He created more than five thousand special deputies to preserve order, prepared a case of criminal conspiracy against the union leaders, and sought an injunction in federal circuit court that would prohibit interference with the railroads’ businesses. Not surprisingly, these actions and the activities of strikebreakers provoked rioting. To suppress violence, blown out of proportion by an alarmist press, the government sent in troops.

The federal circuit court, reasoning that the strike was a combination in restraint of interstate commerce, granted a sweeping injunction. The decree applied to the leaders of the union, all those who combined with them, and any persons whomsoever. It commanded such individuals to cease hindering the railroads, including by means of persuading employees, from carrying the mails and engaging in interstate commerce. Within a week of his arrest for criminal conspiracy, Debs and his fellow officers were again arrested for contempt of court for violating this injunction. While they were in jail the strike folded and the new union crumpled. Though the criminal trial collapsed, the contempt of court charge netted Debs six months’ imprisonment. He sought release by writ of habeas corpus to the Supreme Court, arguing that he was tried for a criminal act in a court of equity and thus denied his constitutional right of trial by jury.

Justice David J. Brewer, speaking for a unanimous Supreme Court, rejected Debs's plea. Refusing to rest the decision on the narrow ground of a conspiracy in restraint of trade, he based the ruling on broad principles. Brewer asserted that the government of the United States, though a government of enumerated powers, had full attributes of sovereignty, within those powers. It could forcibly remove any obstructions to commerce or the mails, either by military power or through an appeal to the federal courts’ equity power. He labeled the union's action to be a public nuisance, which like a private nuisance was subject to equity jurisdiction. That Debs's acts violated the criminal law did not bar equitable relief. The actions also threatened the property rights of the railroads, which were protected under equity jurisdiction. Therefore, no matter what occurred on the criminal side of the law, the equity side could also be utilized. To preserve their authority in such equity proceedings courts needed the power to punish through contempt. Thus, Brewer rejected the argument that Debs had been denied a jury trial. Brewer touted the use of federal tribunals as a better method than armed force in settling labor troubles; it met the potential mob violence not with force but with the rule of law. For the next thirty years, corporations faced with labor troubles turned to the Federal courts; the Pullman injunction proved the model for many others. Not until the New Deal era did such labor injunctions fade away.


Subjects: Law.

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