Stuart v. Laird, 1 Cranch (5 U.S.) 299 (1803)

Mr. Justice PATERSON delivered the opinion of the court.

On an action instituted by John Laird against Hugh Stuart, a judgment was entered in a court for the fourth circuit in the eastern district of Virginia, in December term 1801. On this judgment, an execution was issued, returnable to April term 1802, in the same court. In the term of December 1802, John Laird obtained judgment at a court for the fifth circuit in the Virginia district, against Hugh Stuart and Charles L. Carter, upon their bond for the forthcoming and delivery of certain property therein mentioned, which had been levied upon by virtue of the above execution against the said Hugh Stuart.

Two reasons have been assigned by counsel for reversing the judgment on the forthcoming bond. 1. That as the bond was given for the delivery of property levied on by virtue of an execution issuing out of, and returnable to a court for the fourth circuit, no other court could legally proceed upon the said bond. This is true, if there be no statutable provision to direct and authorize such proceeding. Congress have constitutional authority to establish from time to time such inferior tribunals as they may think proper, and to transfer a cause from one such tribunal to another. In this last particular, there are no words in the constitution to prohibit or restrain the exercise of legislative power.

The present is a case of this kind. It is nothing more than the removal of the suit brought by Stuart against Laird from the court of the fourth circuit to the court of the fifth circuit, which is authorised to proceed upon and carry it into full effect. This is apparent from the ninth section of the act entitled ‘an act to amend the judicial system of the United States,’ passed the 29th of April 1802. The forthcoming bond is an appendage to the cause, or rather a component part of the proceedings.

2. Another reason for reversal is, that the judges of the supreme court have no right to sit as circuit judges, not being appointed as such, or in other words, that they ought to have distinct commissions for that purpose. To this objection, which is of recent date, it is sufficient to observe, that practice and acquiescence under it for a period of several years, commencing with the organization of the judicial system, afford an irresistible answer, and have indeed fixed the construction. It is a contemporary interpretation of the most forcible nature. This practical exposition is too strong and obstinate to be shaken or controlled. Of course, the question is at rest, and ought not now to be disturbed.

Judgment affirmed.

[Chief Justice Marshall tried the case in the court below, and declined to give an opinion.]

Commentary on Stuart v. Laird

The Supreme Court's decision in Stuart v. Laird was more important as a political matter to Jeffersonian Republicans and Federalists than its decision a week earlier in Marbury v. Madison. In March 1802, the Jeffersonian Republicans repealed the Judiciary Act of 1801 in the Judiciary Act of 1802. The 1801 Act created new circuit judge positions, a number of which had been filled by the lame-duck Senate in late February and early March 1801. Those judges, in the year between the two acts, had heard cases, issued judgments, and undertaken other official judicial acts. The repeal of the 1801 Act left these judges, all of whom were Federalists, without a job. In January 1803, several of those judges petitioned the House and Senate for compensation, or at least some agreement that those judges could seek compensation from the judicial system. Congress was affronted, particularly in the House of Representatives. One member of the House said, "If the Supreme Court shall ... declare our law to be unconstitutional, it will then behoove us to act." This appeared to be a threat to attack the judiciary. A week later, President Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to the House concerning the possible impeachment of Circuit Judge John Pickering, a Federalist from New Hampshire. (Pickering was an alcoholic, and his actions may have been deserving of impeachment, but it appeared to Federalists that the judiciary, which largely consisted of Federalists, was under attack.) Stuart v. Laird was a case in which a judge appointed pursuant to the 1801 Act had entered judgment. Laird asked the circuit court (that is, Chief Justice John Marshall, riding circuit) to execute the judgment. Stuart's lawyer was Charles Lee, who also represented William Marbury. Lee argued that execution was permissible only by the judge who issued the judgment. He also argued that the 1802 Judiciary Act, which repealed the 1801 Act, was unconstitutional. Marshall held against Stuart. The decision in Stuart was argued at the time Marbury was decided by the Court. Had the Supreme Court held the 1802 Act unconstitutional, Jeffersonian Republicans would have reacted swiftly and firmly to restrict the power of the judicial branch of government. As you can tell in the opinion excerpted above, the Court held the 1802 Act constitutional, thus defusing the crisis between court and the political branches.