Hayburn's Case 2 Dallas 409 (1792)

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HAYBURN's CASE 2 Dallas 409 (1792)

Hayburn's Case was regarded in its time and has been regarded by many historians since as the first case in which a federal court held an act of Congress unconstitutional. Congress in 1791 directed the circuit courts to rule on the validity of pension claims made by disabled Revolutionary War veterans; the findings of the courts were to be reviewable by the secretary of war and by Congress. The circuit court in New York, presided over by Chief Justice john jay, and the circuit court in North Carolina, presided over by Justice james iredell, addressed letters to President george washington explaining why they could not execute the act in their judicial capacities but that out of respect for Congress they would serve voluntarily as pension commissioners.

In the Pennsylvania circuit, Justices james wilson and john blair, confronted by a petition from one Hayburn, decided not to rule on his petition, and they also explained themselves in a letter to the President. They would have violated the Constitution to have ruled on the petition, they said, because the business directed by the act was not of a judicial nature and did not come within the judicial power of the united states established by Article III. They objected to the statute because it empowered officers of the legislative and executive branches to review court actions, contrary to the principle of separation of powers and judicial independence.

Hayburn's Case thus presented no suit, no controversy between parties, and, technically, no "case," and none of the courts rendered judicial decisions; they reported to the President their refusal to decide judicially. (See cases and controversies.) Some congressmen thought that Hayburn's Case was "the first instance in which a Court of Justice had declared a law of Congress to be unconstitutional," and the same opinion was delightedly trumpeted in anti-administration newspapers, which praised a precedent that they hoped would lead to judicial voiding of Hamiltonian legislation. The "case" reported in 2 Dallas 409 involved a motion for a writ of mandamus to compel the circuit court to grant a pension to Hayburn, but the court held the case over, and Congress revised the statute, providing a different procedure for the relief of pension-seeking veterans.

Leonard W. Levy

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Hayburn's Case 2 Dallas 409 (1792)

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