Prize Cases 2 Black (67 U.S.) 635 (1863)
PRIZE CASES 2 Black (67 U.S.) 635 (1863)
In the Prize Cases, a 5–4 majority of the Supreme Court sustained the validity of President abraham lincoln's blockade proclamations of April 1861, refusing to declare unconstitutional his unilateral actions in meeting the Confederacy's military initiatives.
Lincoln proclaimed a blockade of southern ports on April 19 and 27, 1861. Congress authorized him to declare a state of insurrection by the Act of July 13, 1861, thereby, at least in the view of the dissenters, giving formal legislative recognition to the existence of civil war. By the Act of August 6, 1861, Congress retroactively ratified all Lincoln's military actions. The Prize Cases involved seizures of vessels bound for Confederate ports prior to July 13, 1861.
For the majority, Justice robert c. grier held that a state of civil war existed de facto after the firing on Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861) and that the Supreme Court would take judicial notice of its existence. Though neither Congress nor President can declare war against a state of the Union, Grier conceded, when states waged war against the United States government, the President was "bound to meet it in the shape it presented itself, without waiting for Congress to baptize it with a name." Whether the insurgents were to be accorded belligerent status, and hence be subject to blockade, was a political question to be decided by the President, whose decision was conclusive on the courts. Grier reproved the dissenters by reminding them that the court should not "cripple the arm of the government and paralyze its power by subtle definitions and ingenious sophisms."
Justice samuel nelson for the dissenters (Chief Justice roger b. taney, and Justices john catron and nathan clifford) argued that only Congress can declare a war and that consequently the President can neither declare nor recognize it. A civil war's "existence in a material sense… has no relevancy or weight when the question is what constitutes war in a legal sense." Lincoln's acts before 13 July 1861 constituted merely his "personal war against those in rebellion." Therefore seizures under the blockade proclamations were illegal.
The Prize Cases permitted the federal government the convenient ambiguity of treating the Confederacy as an organized insurgency and as a conventional belligerent. The opinions also had an implicit relevance to other disputed exercises of presidential authority. Defenders of a broad executive power could argue that the majority opinion's reasoning supported the constitutionality of Lincoln's call for volunteers, of his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, and perhaps also of the emancipation proclamation.
William M. Wiecek