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Mississippi v. Johnson


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71 U.S. 475 (1867), argued 12 Apr. 1867, decided 15 Apr. 1867 by vote of 9 to 0; Chase for the Court. In March 1867 Congress enacted the Reconstruction Act over the veto of President Andrew Johnson. The act gave military commanders appointed by the president political authority in the ten unrestored states of the old Confederacy and required these states to adopt new constitutions granting former slaves the right to vote. Mississippi filed a motion in the Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the act and seeking to enjoin the president from enforcing it. Although Johnson had bitterly opposed the Reconstruction Act, he viewed Mississippi's action as a threat to presidential power and ordered his attorney general to oppose the motion.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase held that the judiciary could not enjoin the president from enforcing an allegedly unconstitutional statute. Chase admitted that in Marbury v. Madison (1803) the Court had asserted its authority to command executive officials to fulfill their legal obligations. He ruled, however, that this extended only to ministerial duties, which involved broad discretion and the exercise of political judgment. Chase asserted that the president's unique position gave him a constitutional responsibility to execute the laws. The courts could not restrain him from carrying out this responsibility, although once he did so, his actions were subject to challenge in the courts.

The decision was not an indication of judicial timidity. Rather it rested on the widely shared belief that enjoining enforcement of a statute threatened separation of powers.

Donald G. Nieman

Subjects: Law.


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