Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3

Document 15

Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution 3:§§ 1338--39


§ 1338. Bills of attainder, as they are technically called, are such special acts of the legislature, as inflict capital punishments upon persons supposed to be guilty of high offences, such as treason and felony, without any conviction in the ordinary course of judicial proceedings. If an act inflicts a milder degree of punishment than death, it is called a bill of pains and penalties. But in the sense of the constitution, it seems, that bills of attainder include bills of pains and penalties; for the Supreme Court have said, "A bill of attainder may affect the life of an individual, or may confiscate his property, or both." In such cases, the legislature assumes judicial magistracy, pronouncing upon the guilt of the party without any of the common forms and guards of trial, and satisfying itself with proofs, when such proofs are within its reach, whether they are conformable to the rules of evidence, or not. In short, in all such cases, the legislature exercises the highest power of sovereignty, and what may be properly deemed an irresponsible despotic discretion, being governed solely by what it deems political necessity or expediency, and too often under the influence of unreasonable fears, or unfounded suspicions. Such acts have been often resorted to in foreign governments, as a common engine of state; and even in England they have been pushed to the most extravagant extent in bad times, reaching, as well to the absent and the dead, as to the living. Sir Edward Coke has mentioned it to be among the transcendent powers of parliament, that an act may be passed to attaint a man, after he is dead. And the reigning monarch, who was slain at Bosworth, is said to have been attainted by an act of parliament a few months after his death, notwithstanding the absurdity of deeming him at once in possession of the throne and a traitor. The punishment has often been inflicted without calling upon the party accused to answer, or without even the formality of proof; and sometimes, because the law, in its ordinary course of proceedings, would acquit the offender. The injustice and iniquity of such acts, in general, constitute an irresistible argument against the existence of the power. In a free government it would be intolerable; and in the hands of a reigning faction, it might be, and probably would be, abused to the ruin and death of the most virtuous citizens. Bills of this sort have been most usually passed in England in times of rebellion, or of gross subserviency to the crown, or of violent political excitements; periods, in which all nations are most liable (as well the free, as the enslaved) to forget their duties, and to trample upon the rights and liberties of others.

§ 1339. Of the same class are ex post facto laws, that is to say, (in a literal sense,) laws passed after the act done. The terms, ex post facto laws, in a comprehensive sense, embrace all retrospective laws, or laws governing, or controlling past transactions, whether they are of a civil, or a criminal nature. And there have not been wanting learned minds, that have contended with no small force of authority and reasoning, that such ought to be the interpretation of the terms in the constitution of the United States. As an original question, the argument would be entitled to grave consideration; but the current of opinion and authority has been so generally one way, as to the meaning of this phrase in the state constitutions, as well as in that of the United States, ever since their adoption, that it is difficult to feel, that it is now an open question. The general interpretation has been, and is, that the phrase applies to acts of a criminal nature only; and, that the prohibition reaches every law, whereby an act is declared a crime, and made punishable as such, when it was not a crime, when done; or whereby the act, if a crime, is aggravated in enormity, or punishment; or whereby different, or less evidence, is required to convict an offender, than was required, when the act was committed. The Supreme Court have given the following definition. "An ex post facto law is one, which renders an act punishable in a manner, in which it was not punishable, when it was committed." Such a law may inflict penalties on the person, or may inflict pecuniary penalties, which swell the public treasury. Laws, however, which mitigate the character, or punishment of a crime already committed, may not fall within the prohibition, for they are in favour of the citizen.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3, Document 15
The University of Chicago Press

Story, Joseph. Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. 3 vols. Boston, 1833.

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