Front Page Titles (by Subject) Hayburn's Case, 2 U.S. 409 (1792), 411–414. - Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1
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Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. 409 (1792), 411–414. - James Wilson, Collected Works of James Wilson, vol. 1 
Collected Works of James Wilson, edited by Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, with an Introduction by Kermit L. Hall, and a Bibliographical Essay by Mark David Hall, collected by Maynard Garrison (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 1.
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Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. 409 (1792), 411–414.
The Invalid Pension Act of 1792 required federal circuit courts (comprised of Supreme Court justices riding circuit and local federal district court judges) to hear claims by Revolutionary War veterans seeking federal benefits. Justices in other circuits agreed to hear claims, but Wilson, Iredell, and district judge Peters refused to do so. They sent the following letter to President Washington explaining why. Congress changed the law, excluding judges from this duty. Hayburn’s Case was considered by many contemporaries, and is thought by many scholars today, to be the first instance of a federal court declaring an act of Congress to be unconstitutional.
The Circuit court for the district of Pennsylvania, (consisting of Wilson, and Blair, Justices, and Peters,1 District Judge) made the following representation, in a letter jointly addressed to the President of the United States, on the 18th of April, 1792.
To you it officially belongs to “take care that the laws” of the United States “be faithfully executed.” Before you, therefore, we think it our duty to lay the sentiments, which, on a late painful occasion, governed us with regard to an act passed by the legislature of the union.
The people of the United States have vested in Congress all legislative powers “granted in the constitution.”
They have vested in one Supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress shall establish, “the judicial power of the United States.”
It is worthy of remark, that in Congress the whole legislative power of the United States is not vested. An important part of that power was exercised by the people themselves, when they “ordained and established the Constitution.”
This Constitution is “the Supreme Law of the Land.” This supreme law “all judicial officers of the United States are bound, by oath or affirmation, to support.”
It is a principle important to freedom, that in government, the judicial should be distinct from, and independent of, the legislative department. To this important principle the people of the United States, in forming their Constitution, have manifested the highest regard.
They have placed their judicial power not in Congress, but in “courts.” They have ordained that the “Judges of those courts shall hold their offices during good behaviour,” and that “during their continuance in office, their salaries shall not be diminished.”
Congress have lately passed an act, to regulate, among other things, “the claims to invalid pensions.”
Upon due consideration, we have been unanimously of opinion, that, under this act, the Circuit court held for the Pennsylvania district could not proceed;
1st. Because the business directed by this act is not of a judicial nature. It forms no part of the power vested by the Constitution in the courts of the United States; the Circuit court must, consequently, have proceeded without constitutional authority.
2d. Because, if, upon that business, the court had proceeded, its judgments (for its opinions are its judgments) might, under the same act, have been revised and controuled by the legislature, and by an officer in the executive department. Such revision and controul we deemed radically inconsistent with the independence of that judicial power which is vested in the courts; and, consequently, with that important principle which is so strictly observed by the Constitution of the United States.
These, Sir, are the reasons of our conduct. Be assured that, though it became necessary, it was far from being pleasant. To be obliged to act contrary, either to the obvious directions of Congress, or to a constitutional principle, in our judgment equally obvious, excited feelings in us, which we hope never to experience again.
The Circuit court for the district of North Carolina, (consisting of Iredell,2Justice, and Sitgreaves,3 District Judge) made the following representation in a letter jointly addressed to the President of the United States, on the 8th of June, 1792.
We, the judges now attending at the Circuit court of the United States for the district of North Carolina, conceive it our duty to lay before you some important observations which have occurred to us in the consideration of an act of Congress lately passed, entitled “an act to provide for the settlement of the claims of widows and orphans barred by the limitations heretofore established, and to regulate the claims to invalid pensions.
We beg leave to premise, that it is as much our inclination, as it is our duty, to receive with all possible respect every act of the Legislature, and that we never can find ourselves in a more painful situation than to be obliged to object to the execution of any, more especially to the execution of one founded on the purest principles of humanity and justice, which the act in question undoubtedly is. But, however lamentable a difference in opinion really may be, or with whatever difficulty we may have formed an opinion, we are under the indispensable necessity of acting according to the best dictates of our own judgment, after duly weighing every consideration that can occur to us; which we have done on the present occasion.
The extreme importance of the case, and our desire of being explicit beyond the danger of being misunderstood, will, we hope, justify us in stating our observations in a systematic manner. We therefore, Sir, submit to you the following:
1. That the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial departments, are each formed in a separate and independent manner; and that the ultimate basis of each is the Constitution only, within the limits of which each department can alone justify any act of authority.
2. That the Legislature, among other important powers, unquestionably possess that of establishing courts in such a manner as to their wisdom shall appear best, limited by the terms of the constitution only; and to whatever extent that power may be exercised, or however severe the duty they may think proper to require, the Judges, when appointed in virtue of any such establishment, owe implicit and unreserved obedience to it.
3. That at the same time such courts cannot be warranted, as we conceive, by virtue of that part of the Constitution delegating Judicial power, for the exercise of which any act of the legislature is provided, in exercising (even under the authority of another act) any power not in its nature judicial, or, if judicial, not provided for upon the terms the Constitution requires.
4. That whatever doubt may be suggested, whether the power in question is properly of a judicial nature, yet inasmuch as the decision of the court is not made final, but may be at least suspended in its operation by the Secretary at War, if he shall have cause to suspect imposition or mistake; this subjects the decision of the court to a mode of revision which we consider to be unwarranted by the Constitution; for, though Congress may certainly establish, in instances not yet provided for, courts of appellate jurisdiction, yet such courts must consist of judges appointed in the manner the Constitution requires, and holding their offices by no other tenure than that of their good behaviour, by which tenure the office of Secretary at War is not held. And we beg leave to add, with all due deference, that no decision of any court of the United States can, under any circumstances, in our opinion, agreeable to the Constitution, be liable to a reversion, or even suspension, by the Legislature itself, in whom no judicial power of any kind appears to be vested, but the important one relative to impeachments.
These, sir, are our reasons for being of opinion, as we are at present, that this Circuit court cannot be justified in the execution of that part of the act, which requires it to examine and report an opinion on the unfortunate cases of officers and soldiers disabled in the service of the United States. The part of the act requiring the court to sit five days, for the purpose of receiving applications from such persons, we shall deem it our duty to comply with; for, whether in our opinion such purpose can or cannot be answered, it is, as we conceive, our indispensable duty to keep open any court of which we have the honor to be judges, as long as Congress shall direct.
The high respect we entertain for the Legislature, our feelings as men for persons, whose situation requires the earliest, as well as the most effectual relief, and our sincere desire to promote, whether officially or otherwise, the just and benevolent views of Congress, so conspicuous on the present as well as on many other occasions, have induced us to reflect, whether we could be justified in acting, under this act, personally in the character of commissioners during the session of a court; and could we be satisfied that we had authority to do so, we would cheerfully devote such part of our time as might be necessary for the performance of the service. But we confess we have great doubts on this head. The power appears to be given to the court only and not to the Judges of it; and as the Secretary at War has not a discretion in all instances, but only in those where he has cause to suspect imposition or mistake, to with-hold a person recommended by the court from being named on the pension list, it would be necessary for us to be well persuaded we possessed such an authority, before we exercised a power, which might be a means of drawing money out of the public treasury as effectually as an express appropriation by law. We do not mean, however, to preclude ourselves from a very deliberate consideration, whether we can be warranted in executing the purposes of the act in that manner, in case an application should be made.
No application has yet been made to the court, or to ourselves individually, and therefore we have had some doubts as to the propriety of giving an opinion in a case which has not yet come regularly and judicially before us. None can be more sensible than we are of the necessity of judges being in general extremely cautious in not intimating an opinion in any case extra-judicially, because we well know how liable the best minds are, notwithstanding their utmost care, to a bias, which may arise from a pre-conceived opinion, even unguardedly; much more deliberately, given: But in the present instance, as many unfortunate and meritorious individuals, whom Congress have justly thought proper objects of immediate relief, may suffer great distress even by a short delay, and may be utterly ruined by a long one, we determined at all events to make our sentiments known as early as possible, considering this as a case which must be deemed an exception to the general rule, upon every principle of humanity and justice; resolving however, that so far as we are concerned individually, in case an application should be made, we will most attentively hear it; and if we can be convinced this opinion is a wrong one, we shall not hesitate to act accordingly, being as far from the weakness of supposing that there is any reproach in having committed an error, to which the greatest and best men are sometimes liable, as we should be from so low a sense of duty, as to think it would not be the highest and most deserved reproach that could be bestowed on any men (much more on Judges) that they were capable, from any motive, of persevering against conviction, in apparently maintaining an opinion, which they really thought to be erroneous.
[1. ]Richard Peters, Jr. (1744–1828) was a Pennsylvania attorney and politician. He served as a federal district court judge for Pennsylvania from 1792 to 1828.
[2. ]James Iredell (1751–1799) from North Carolina served in the Supreme Court from 1790 to 1799.
[3. ]John Sitgreaves (1757–1802) served as a federal district court judge from 1790 to 1794.