Article 3, Section 2, Clause 1

Document 40

United States v. Worrall

2 Dall. 384 C.C.D.Pa. 1798

Chase, Justice.--This is an indictment for an offence highly injurious to morals, and deserving the severest punishment; but as it is an indictment at common law, I dismiss, at once, everything that has been said about the constitution and laws of the United States.

In this country, every man sustains a two-fold political capacity; one in relation to the state, and another in relation to the United States. In relation to the state, he is subject to various municipal regulations, founded upon the state constitution and policy, which do not affect him in his relation to the United States: for the constitution of the Union is the source of all the jurisdiction of the national government; so that the departments of the government can never assume any power, that is not expressly granted by that instrument, nor exercise a power in any other manner than is there prescribed. Besides the particular cases, which the 8th section of the 1st article designates, there is a power granted to congress to create, define and punish crimes and offences, whenever they shall deem it necessary and proper by law to do so, for effectuating the objects of the government; and although bribery is not among the crimes and offences specifically mentioned, it is certainly included in this general provision. The question, however, does not arise about the power, but about the exercise of the power:--Whether the courts of the United States can punish a man for any act, before it is declared by a law of the United States to be criminal? Now, it appears to my mind, to be as essential that congress should define the offences to be tried, and apportion the punishments to be inflicted, as that they should erect courts to try the criminal, or to pronounce a sentence on conviction.

It is attempted, however, to supply the silence of the constitution and statutes of the Union, by resorting to the common law, for a definition and punishment of the offence which has been committed: but, in my opinion, the United States, as a federal government, have no common law; and consequently, no indictment can be maintained in their courts, for offences merely at the common law. If, indeed, the United States can be supposed, for a moment, to have a common law, it must, I presume, be that of England; and yet, it is impossible to trace when, or how, the system was adopted or introduced. With respect to the individual states, the difficulty does not occur. When the American colonies were first settled by our ancestors, it was held, as well by the settlers, as by the judges and lawyers of England, that they brought hither, as a birth-right and inheritance, so much of the common law, as was applicable to their local situation, and change of circumstances. But each colony judged for itself, what parts of the common law were applicable to its new condition; and in various modes, by legislative acts, by judicial decisions, or by constant usage, adopted some parts, and rejected others. Hence, he who shall travel through the different states, will soon discover, that the whole of the common law of England has been nowhere introduced; that some states have rejected what others have adopted; and that there is, in short, a great and essential diversity, in the subjects to which the common law is applied, as well as in the extent of its application. The common law, therefore, of one state, is not the common law of another; but the common law of England is the law of each state, so far as each state has adopted it; and it results from that position, connected with the judicial act, that the common law will always apply to suits between citizen and citizen, whether they are instituted in a federal, or state court.

But the question recurs, when and how, have the courts of the United States acquired a common-law jurisdiction, in criminal cases? The United States must possess the common law themselves, before they can communicate it to their judicial agents: Now, the United States did not bring it with them from England; the constitution does not create it; and no act of congress has assumed it. Besides, what is the common law to which we are referred? Is it the common law entire, as it exists in England; or modified as it exists in some of the states; and of the various modifications, which are we to select, the system of Georgia or New Hampshire, of Pennsylvania or Connecticut?

Upon the whole, it may be a defect in our political institutions, it may be an inconvenience in the administration of justice, that the common-law authority, relating to crimes and punishments, has not been conferred upon the government of the United States, which is a government in other respects also of a limited jurisdiction: but judges cannot remedy political imperfections, nor supply any legislative omission. I will not say, whether the offence is at this time cognisable in a state court. But, certainly, congress might have provided, by law, for the present case, as they have provided for other cases of a similar nature; and yet, if congress had ever declared and defined the offence, without prescribing a punishment, I should still have thought it improper to exercise a discretion upon that part of the subject.

Peters, Justice.--Whenever a government has been established, I have always supposed, that a power to preserve itself was a necessary, and an inseparable concomitant. But the existence of the federal government would be precarious, it could no longer be called an independent government, if, for the punishment of offences of this nature, tending to obstruct and pervert the administration of its affairs, an appeal must be made to the state tribunals, or the offenders must escape with absolute impunity. The power to punish misdemeanors, is originally and strictly a common-law power; of which, I think, the United States are constitutionally possessed. It might have been exercised by congress, in the form of a legislative act; but it may also, in my opinion, be enforced in a course of judicial proceeding. Whenever an offence aims at the subversion of any federal institution, or at the corruption of its public officers, it is an offence against the well-being of the United States; from its very nature, it is cognisable under their authority; and consequently, it is within the jurisdiction of this court, by virtue of the 11th section of the judicial act.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 3, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 40
The University of Chicago Press

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