Holmes v. Jennison

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habeas corpus

Roger Brooke Taney (1777—1864)

Smith Thompson (1823—1843)

Joseph Story (1779—1845)


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14 Pet. (39 U.S.) 540 (1840), argued 24–25 Jan. 1840, dismissed 4 Mar. 1840 by vote of 4 to 4; Taney for himself, Story, McLean, and Wayne; opinions in disagreement by Thompson, Baldwin, Barbour, and Catron; McKinley absent. Silas H. Jennison, governor of Vermont, ordered George Holmes, a resident of Quebec, arrested and sent back to Canada to be tried for murder even though the United States had no extradition treaty with Canada. The Vermont Supreme Court refused to issue a writ of habeas corpus. Dividing 4 to 4 over the question, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case for want of jurisdiction.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney affirmed the Court's jurisdiction as well as the exclusive power of the federal government to govern foreign relations. Because of that exclusive power, Taney reasoned, a state governor had no authority to surrender fugitives to a foreign country. Four justices disagreed, believing that the Court lacked jurisdiction over denial of habeas corpus by a state court. Justice Smith Thompson, however, implied in his opinion that Governor Jennison had no authority to order Holmes's surrender. Because five of the eight justices sitting on the case denied Jennison's authority, the Vermont Supreme Court ordered Holmes released even though the U.S. Supreme Court had refused, because of the tie vote, to take jurisdiction of the case. Taney's language in favor of the exclusive right of the federal government over foreign relations stands as the most notable and enduring feature of this case. Nationalists such as Joseph Story applauded Taney's reasoning, while states-rightists such as James Buchanan deplored it.

Robert M. Ireland

Subjects: Law.

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