Separation of Powers: United States vs. Klein, 1871

U.S. Supreme Court (1871)

Facts: Wilson abandoned property to the Treasury Department when he was judged to have aided the rebellion. Under the Abandoned and Captured Property Act of March 12, 1863, Wilson’s property was sold, and the proceeds added to the Treasury. Wilson gained a full presidential pardon and amnesty by swearing a loyalty oath under the proclamation of Dec. 8th, 1863, said proclamation promising restoration of all rights of property to those who took the oath and accepted pardon. After Wilson’s death, Klein, the administrator of his estate, successfully petitioned the Court of Claims for the refund of said proceeds from the Treasury. An appeal was taken to the Supreme Court.

Within months of the filing of this appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the claimant in a factually similar case: U.S. v. Padelford. Congress subsequently passed new legislation, inside the year’s appropriation bill, that would force the courts to throw out cases in which the claimant had received a pardon for aiding the rebellion, and whose only proof of loyalty was an oath and acceptance of pardon. This legislation precluded a pardon as evidence in a claim, and would make unqualified acceptance of the pardon an admission of guilt in aiding the rebellion. The Attorney General remanded Padelford to the Supreme Court for dismissal under this new legislation.

Issue: Does Congress’ power to make exceptions to the appellate jurisdiction of inferior courts extend to withholding appellate jurisdiction from the Supreme Court in order to force a decision or to limit the full effect of presidential pardons, even to the extent of restoration of property rights?

Rule: Using legislation to either limit an executive pardon or force a de facto judicial decision exceeds the constitutional powers of the legislative branch.

Reasoning: Congress provided that the Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction of the judgments of the Court of Claims in 1863. The appropriation bill of 1870 removed this jurisdiction only in specific cases, all of which would be adverse decisions for the government, effectively deciding the cases for the court. Although Congress has powers relating to the judicial branch, this exercise of legislative power to create judicial decisions surpasses the limits of separation of powers.

Furthermore, the bill’s impairment of the full effect of a presidential pardon infringes on the executive branch. Congress can neither limit the effect of a presidential pardon nor exclude from its exercise any class of offenders. The Supreme Court upheld its decision of Padelford, ruled in favor of Klein, and declared that Congress had violated its constitutional powers. The dissenting opinion disagreed upon the ruling of Klein’s case on matters of interpretation, but upheld the majority opinion on constitutional separation of powers.

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