Ex parte McCardle,
74 U.S. 506 (1868)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ex parte McCardle, 74 U.S. 7 Wall. 506 506 (1868)

Ex parte McCardle

74 U.S. (7 Wall.) 506


1. The appellate jurisdiction of this court is conferred by the Constitution, and not derived from acts of Congress, but is conferred "with such exceptions, and under such regulations, as Congress may make," and, therefore, acts of Congress affirming such jurisdiction have always been construed as excepting from it all cases not expressly described and provided for.

2. When, therefore, Congress enacts that this court shall have appellate jurisdiction over final decisions of the Circuit Courts in certain cases, the act operates as a negation or exception of such jurisdiction in other cases, and the repeal of the act necessarily negatives jurisdiction under it of these cases also.

3. The repeal of such an act, pending an appeal provided for by it, is not an exercise of judicial power by the legislature, no matter whether the repeal takes effect before or after argument of the appeal.

4. The act of 27th March, 1868, repealing that provision of the act of 5th of February, 1867, to amend the Judicial Act of 1789, which authorized appeals to this court from the decisions of the Circuit Courts in cases of habeas corpus, does not except from the appellate jurisdiction of this

Page 74 U. S. 507

court any cases but appeals under the act of 1867. It does not affect the appellate jurisdiction which was previously exercised in cases of habeas corpus.

The case was this:

The Constitution of the United States ordains as follows:

"§ 1. The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

"§ 2. The judicial power shall extend to all cases in law or equity arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States,"


And in these last cases, the Constitution ordains that,

"The Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction, both as to law and fact, with such exceptions, and under such regulations, as the Congress shall make."

With these constitutional provisions in existence, Congress, on the 5th February, 1867, by "An act to amend an act to establish the judicial courts of the United States, approved September 24, 1789," provided that the several courts of the United States, and the several justices and judges of such courts, within their respective jurisdiction, in addition to the authority already conferred by law, should have power to grant writs of habeas corpus in all cases where any person may be restrained of his or her liberty in violation of the Constitution, or of any treaty or law of the United States. And that, from the final decision of any judge, justice, or court inferior to the Circuit Court, appeal might be taken to the Circuit Court of the United States for the district in which the cause was heard, and from the judgment of the said Circuit Court to the Supreme Court of the United States.

This statute being in force, one McCardle, alleging unlawful restraint by military force, preferred a petition in the court below, for the writ of habeas corpus.

Page 74 U. S. 508

The writ was issued, and a return was made by the military commander admitting the restraint, but denying that it was unlawful.

It appeared that the petitioner was not in the military service of the United States, but was held in custody by military authority for trial before a military commission upon charges founded upon the publication of articles alleged to be incendiary and libelous, in a newspaper of which he was editor. The custody was alleged to be under the authority of certain acts of Congress.

Upon the hearing, the petitioner was remanded to the military custody, but, upon his prayer, an appeal was allowed him to this court, and upon filing the usual appeal bond, for costs, he was admitted to bail upon recognizance, with sureties conditioned for his future appearance in the Circuit Court, to abide by and perform the final judgment of this court. The appeal was taken under the above-mentioned act of February 5, 1867.

A motion to dismiss this appeal was made at the last term, and, after argument, was denied. [Footnote 1]

Subsequently, on the 2d, 3d, 4th, and 9th March, the case was argued very thoroughly and ably upon the merits, and was taken under advisement. While it was thus held, and before conference in regard to the decision proper to be made, an act was passed by Congress, [Footnote 2] returned with objections by the President, and, on the 27th March, repassed by the constitutional majority, the second section of which was as follows:

"And be it further enacted, That so much of the act approved February 5, 1867, entitled 'An act to amend an act to establish the judicial courts of the United States, approved September 24, 1789,' as authorized an appeal from the judgment of the Circuit Court to the Supreme Court of the United States, or the exercise of any such jurisdiction by said Supreme Court, on appeals which have been, or may hereafter be taken, be, and the same is hereby repealed. "

Page 74 U. S. 509

The attention of the court was directed to this statute at the last term, but counsel having expressed a desire to be heard in argument upon its effect, and the Chief Justice being detained from his place here by his duties in the Court of Impeachment, the cause was continued under advisement. Argument was now heard upon the effect of the repealing act.

Page 74 U. S. 512

Primary Holding

The Constitution gives the Supreme Court its appellate jurisdiction, but Congress also has the power to make exceptions to it.


The Civil War Reconstruction Acts of the 1860s subjected many states of the former Confederacy to military government. McCardle, a Mississippi newspaper editor, filed for a writ of habeas corpus when he was taken into military custody for having allegedly published libelous and incendiary articles. Under the federal law that formed the basis of his petition, federal courts were allowed to grant habeas corpus to individuals who had been detained for violations of constitutional rights. It provided that the Supreme Court could hear appeals of these proceedings. After McCardle was denied habeas corpus by the lower court, the Supreme Court ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the case on the merits.

One year later, Congress passed a second law that repealed parts of the first law and removed jurisdiction from the Supreme Court in these appeals, past or present.



  • Salmon Portland Chase (Author)
  • Samuel Nelson
  • Robert Cooper Grier
  • Nathan Clifford
  • Noah Haynes Swayne
  • Samuel Freeman Miller
  • David Davis
  • Stephen Johnson Field

The Constitution provides direct authority for the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, rather than any legislative action. However, the Constitution provides this authority subject to exceptions and regulations by Congress. The new law creates an express exception to appellate jurisdiction over habeas corpus cases, repealing the initial law. This has the same effect as though the previous law had never existed, except as to past and closed cases. Since the court's jurisdiction has been clearly removed, the case must be dismissed because it lacks the authority to render a judgment under a repealed law.

However, the law and this decision affect only habeas corpus appeals from circuit courts that were brought under the repealed law.

Case Commentary

It is important to note that this decision concerned only the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court over habeas corpus matters, rather than its original jurisdiction over habeas corpus matters brought directly to it.

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