135 U.S. 1 (1890), argued 4–5 Mar. 1890, decided 14 Apr. 1890 by vote of 6 to 2; Miller for the Court, Lamar in dissent, Field not participating. Justice Stephen J. Field had provoked the hostility of David Terry, a popular lawyer and the justice's former colleague on the California Supreme Court by a circuit court opinion invalidating the previous marriage of Terry's wife. When Field returned to California for circuit duty in 1889, he was accompanied by David Neagle, a federal marshal assigned to him. When Terry encountered Field and assaulted him, Neagle shot and killed the assailant. Charged with murder under California law, Neagle sought a writ of habeas corpus from the federal circuit court. Judge Lorenzo Sawyer, who had participated with Field in the decision invalidating Mrs. Terry's marriage, granted the writ.
The Supreme Court had to decide whether a federal court could make a definitive determination of justifiable homicide and thereby preempt the operation of California law. Federal legislation authorized a writ of habeas corpus if the person was held in violation of federal law, which had been understood to mean a statute. To rescue Neagle from the uncertainties of California justice, the Court now defined “law” to include acts done under the authority of the United States. The dissenters condemned this expansion of federal power for its intrusion into the domain of state criminal law.
John E. Semonche