United States v. Hudson,
11 U.S. 32 (1812)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Hudson, 11 U.S. 7 Cranch 32 32 (1812)

United States v. Hudson

11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 32


The courts of the United States have no common law jurisdiction in cases of libel against the government of the United States.

But they have the power to fine for contempts, to imprison for contumacy, and to enforce the observance of their orders.

Certain implied powers must necessarily result to our courts of justice from the nature of their institution. But jurisdiction of crimes against the state are not among those powers.

To fine for contempt, imprison for contumacy, enforce the observance of orders, &c., are powers which cannot be dispensed with in a court, because they are necessary to the exercise of all others.

This was a case certified from the Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut in which, upon argument of a general demurrer to an indictment for a libel on the President and Congress of the United States, contained in the Connecticut Currant, of the 7th of May, 1806, charging them with having in secret voted two millions of dollars as a present to Bonaparte for leave to make a treaty with Spain, the judges of that court were divided in opinion upon the question, whether the circuit court of the United States had a common law jurisdiction in cases of libel.

Primary Holding

The federal circuit courts do not have an implied authority to take criminal jurisdiction over common-law cases.


The federal government sought to charge certain defendants with libel for allegedly claiming that the President and Congress had secretly issued $2 million as a present to Napoleon Bonaparte (the ruler of France) for permission to make a treaty with Spain. The defendants brought a motion to dismiss the indictment, and the federal court was uncertain whether it held common-law jurisdiction over libel cases. It certified this question to the Supreme Court.



  • William Johnson, Jr. (Author)
  • John Marshall
  • Bushrod Washington
  • Henry Brockholst Livingston
  • Thomas Todd
  • Gabriel Duvall
  • Joseph Story

Any powers that are not expressly granted to the federal government remain within the authority of the states. Only the Supreme Court, among all federal courts, receives its power from the Constitution. All other federal courts take their authority from the federal government and have no powers beyond those granted to it. Any implied powers that they possess are limited to those related to preserving their existence and promoting the purposes for their creation. Their implied powers cannot be interpreted so broadly as to include jurisdiction over crimes against the state. Congress must create a criminal law, set a penalty, and provide federal courts with jurisdiction over this type of prosecution.

Case Commentary

Research on the history of the drafting of the Constitution suggests that this is the textually correct result. Courts initially took the opposite view, however, before a more careful investigation of background materials revealed the founders' intentions more clearly.

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