Hayburn's Case,
2 U.S. 409 (1792)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Hayburn's Case, 2 U.S. 2 Dall. 409 409 (1792)

Hayburn's Case

2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409


This was a motion for a mandamus to be directed to the Circuit Court for the District of Pennsylvania commanding the said court to proceed in a certain petition of Wm. Hayburn, who had applied to be put on the pension list of the United States as an invalid pensioner.

The principal case arose upon the act of Congress passed 23 March, 1792.

The Attorney General (Randolph) who made the motion for the mandamus, having premised that it was done ex officio, without an application from any particular person, but with a view to procure the execution of an act of Congress particularly interesting to a meritorious and unfortunate class of citizens, the court declared that it entertained great doubt upon his right, under such circumstances and in a case of this kind, to proceed ex officio, and directed him to state the principles on which he attempted to support the right. The Attorney General accordingly entered into an elaborate description of the powers and duties of his office.

But the court being divided in opinion on that question, the motion, made ex officio, was not allowed.

Primary Holding

The judiciary cannot be required by Congress to undertake duties that are not judicial because the branches of the federal government are distinct and independent entities.


Congress provided in 1792 that disabled veterans of the Revolutionary War should apply to the circuit court in order to be placed on the pension list of the United States. The circuit court was granted the authority to decide whether each applicant was eligible and certify to the Secretary of War that the name should be included on the pension list. The Secretary of War was entitled to exclude an applicant if he believed that the court had made a mistake. The Attorney General made a motion for mandamus on behalf of Hayburn after the circuit court had refused to respond to a writ brought by the Attorney General ex officio without an application by Hayden. The court declined to review the motion, since it required the court to add Hayburn's name to the pension list.


Per Curiam

The 1792 Act of Congress was invalid because it tasked the circuit courts with duties that are not judicial, since their decisions are subject to being evaluated and potentially overturned by the Secretary of War. No executive officer may function as a virtual appellate court for any part of the judicial branch.

Case Commentary

Advisory opinions are not within the power of the judiciary, but it does have the power to issue declaratory judgments. The Court initially was reluctant to issue declaratory judgments either, finding no distinction between them and advisory opinions, but Congress later required it to do by law.

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