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OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES UNDER WHICH A LEGISLATIVE ENACTMENT
MAY BE DECLARED UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
We have now examined somewhat briefly the legislative power of the State, and the bounds which expressly or by implication are set to it, and also some of the conditions necessary to its proper and valid exercise. In so doing it has been made apparent that, under some circumstances, it may become the duty of the courts to declare that what the legislature has assumed to enact is void, either from want of constitutional power to enact it, or because the constitutional forms or conditions have not been observed. In the further examination of our subject, it will be important to consider what the circumstances are under which the courts will feel impelled to exercise this high prerogative, and what precautions should be observed before assuming to do so.
It must be evident to any one that the power to declare a legislative enactment void is one which the judge, conscious of the fallibility of the human judgment, will shrink from exercising in any case where he can conscientiously and with due regard to duty and official oath decline the responsibility. The legislative and judicial are co-ordinate departments of the government, of equal dignity; cach is alike supreme in the exercise of its proper functions, and cannot directly or indirectly, while acting within the limits of its authority, be subjected to the control or supervision of the other, without an unwarrantable assumption by that other of power which, by the constitution, is not conferred upon it. The constitution apportions the powers of government, but it does not make any one of the three departments subordinate to another, wlien exercising the trust committed to it. The courts may declare legislative enactments unconstitutional and void in some cases, but not because the judicial power is superior in degree or dignity to the legislative. Being required to declare what the law is in the cases which come before them, they must enforce the constitution as the paramount law, whenever a legislative * en-[* 160] actment comes in conflict with it.1 But the courts sit, not to review or revise the legislative action, but to enforce the legislative will; and it is only where they find that the legislature has failed to keep within its constitutional limits, that they are at liberty to disregard its action; and in doing so, they only do what every private citizen may do in respect to the mandates of the courts when the judges assume to act and to render judgments or decrees without jurisdiction. “ In exercising this high authority, the judges claim no judicial supremacy; they are only the administrators of the public will. If an act of the legislature is held void, it is not because the judges have any control over the legislative power, but because the act is forbidden by the constitution, and because the will of the people, which is therein declared, is paramount to that of their representatives expressed in any law.” 2
Nevertheless, in declaring a law unconstitutional, a court must necessarily cover the same ground which has already been covered by the legislative department in deciding upon the propriety of enacting the law, and they must indirectly overrule the decision of that co-ordinate department. The task is therefore a delicate one, and only to be entered upon with reluctance and hesitation.
It is a solemn act in any case to declare that that body of men to whom the people have committed the sovereign function of making the laws for the commonwealth, have deliberately disregarded the limitations imposed upon this delegated authority, and usurped power which the people have been careful to withhold; and it is almost equally so when the act which is adjudged to be unconstitutional appears to be chargeable rather to careless and improvident action, or error in judgment, than to intentional disregard of obligation. But the duty to do this in a proper case, though at one time doubted, and by some persons persistently denied, it is now generally agreed that the courts cannot properly decline, and in its performance they seldom fail of proper support if they proceed with due caution and circumspection, and under a proper sense as well of their own responsibility, as of the respect due to the action and judgment of the law-makers.3
· Rice v. State, 7 Ind. 334; Bloodgood v. Mohawk and Hudson Railroad Co., 18 Wend. 53.
· Lindsay c. Commissioners, &c., 2 Bay, 61.
• There are at least two cases in American judicial history where judges have been impeached as criminals for refusing to enforce unconstitutional enactments. * I. In view of the considerations which have been sug- [* 161] gested, the rule which is adopted by some courts, that they
One of these — the case of Trevett v. Weedon, decided by the Superior Court of Rhode Island in 1786 – is particularly interesting as being the first case in which a legislative enactment was declared unconstitutional and void on the ground of incompatibility with the State constitution. Mr. Arnold, in his history of Rhode Island, vol. 2, ch. 24, gives an account of this case; and the printed brief in opposition to the law, and in defence of the impeached judges, is in possession of the present writer. The act in question was one which imposed a heavy penalty on any one who should refuse to receive on the same terms as specie the bills of a bank chartered by the State, or who should in any way discourage the circulation of such bills. The penalty was made collectible on summary conviction, without jury trial; and the act was held void on the ground that jury trial was expressly given by the colonial charter, which then constituted the constitution of the State. Although the judges were not removed on impeachment, the legislature refused to re-elect them when their terms expired at the end of the year, and supplanted them by more pliant tools, by whose assistance the
paper money was forced into circulation, and public and private debts extinguished by means of it. Concerning the other case, we copy from the Western Law Monthly, “ Sketch of Hon. Calvin Pease,” vol. 5, p. 3, June, 1863: “The first session of the Supreme Court [of Obio] under the constitution was held at Warren, Trumbull County, on the first Tuesday of June, 1803. The State was divided into three circuits. . . . The third circuit of the State was composed of the counties of Washington, Belmont, Jefferson, Columbiania, and Trumbull. At this session of the legislature, Mr. Pease was appointed President Judge of the Third Circuit in April, 1803, and though nearly twenty-seven years old, he was very youthful in his appearance. He held the office until March 4, 1810, when he sent his resignation to Governor Huntingdon. ... During his term of service upon the bench many interesting questions were presented for decision, and among them the constitutionality of some portion of the act of 1805, defining the duties of justices of the peace; and he decided that so much of the filih section as gave justices of the peace jurisdiction exceeding $20, and so much of the twenty-ninth section as prevented plaintiffs from recovering costs in actions commenced by original writs in the Court of Common Pleas, for sums between $20 and $50, were repugnant to the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Ohio, and therefore null and void. . . . The clamor and abuse to which this decision gave rise was not in the least mitigated or diminished by the circumstance that it was concurred in by a majority of the judges of the Supreme Court, Messrs. Huntingdon and Tod. ... At the session of the legislature of 1807-8, steps were taken to impeach him and the judges of the Supreme Court who concurred with him; but the resolutions introduced into the house were not acted upon during the session. But the scheme was not abandoned. At an early day of the next session, and with almost indecent haste, a committee was appointed to inquire into the conduct of the offending judges, and with leave to exhibit articles of impeachment, or report otherwise, as the facts might justily. The committee without delay reported articles of impeachment against Messrs. Pease [* 162] will not * decide a legislative act to be unconstitutional by
a majority of a bare quorum of the judges only, - less than a majority of all, – but will instead postpone the argument until the bench is full, seems a very prudent and proper precaution to be observed before entering upon questions so delicate and so important. The benefit of the wisdom and deliberation of every judge ought to be had under circumstances so grave. Something more than private rights are involved; the fundamental law of the State is in question, as well as the correctness of legislative action; and considerations of courtesy, as well as the importance of the question involved, should lead the court to decline to act at all, where they cannot sustain the legislative action, until a full bench has been consulted, and its deliberate opinion is found to be against it. But this is a rule of propriety, not of constitutional obligation; and though generally adopted and observed, each court will regulate, in its own discretion, its practice in this particular.
and Tod, but not against Huntingdon, who in the mean time had been elected governor of the State. . . . The articles of impeachment were preferred by the House of Representatives on the 23d day of December, 1808. He was summoned at once to appear before the Senate as a high court of impeachment, and he promptly obeyed the summons. The managers of the prosecution on the part of the House were Thomas Morris, afterwards Senator in Congress from Obio, Joseph Sharp, James Pritchard, Samuel Marrett, and Othniel Tooker. ... Several days were consumed in the investigation, but the trial resulted in the acquittal of the respondent.” Sketch of Hon. George Tod, August number of same volume: “At the session of the legislature of 1808–9, he was impeached for concurring in decisions made by Judge Pease, in the counties of Trumbull and Jefferson, that certain provisions of the act of the legislature, passed in 1805, defining the duties of justices of the peace, were in conflict with the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Ohio, and therefore void. These decisions of the courts of Common Pleas and of the Supreme Court, it tas insisted, were not only an assault upon the wisdom and dignity, but also upon the supremacy of the legislature, which passed the act in question. This could not be endured; and the popular fury against the judges rose to a very high pitch, and the senator from the county of Trumbull in the legislature at that time, Calvin Cone, Esq., took no pains to soothe the offended dignity of the members of that body, or their sympathizing constituents, but pressed a contrary line of conduct. The udges must be brought to justice, he insisted vehemently, and be punished, so that others might be terrified by the example, and deterred from committing similar offences in the future. The charges against Mr. Tod were substantially the same as those against Mr. Pease. Mr. Tod was first tried, and acquitted. The managers of the impeachment, as well as the result, were the same in both cases." · Briscoe v. Commonwealth Bank of Kentucky, 8 Pet. 118. It has been * II. Neither will a court, as a general rule, pass upon a (* 163] constitutional question, and decide a statute to be invalid, unless a decision upon that very point becomes necessary to the determination of the cause.
" While the courts cannot shun the discussion of constitutional questions when fairly presented, they will not go out of their way to find such topics. They will not seek to draw in such weighty matters collaterally, nor on trivial occasions. It is both more proper and more respectful to a co-ordinate department to discuss constitutional questions only when that is the very lis mota. Thus presented and determined, the decision carries a weight with it to which no extra-judicial disquisition is entitled.”] In any case, therefore, where a constitutional question
1 is raised, though it may be legitimately presented by the record, yet if the record also presents some other and clear ground upon
intimated that inferior courts should not presume to pass upon constitutional questions, but ought in all cases to treat statutes as valid. Ortman v. Greenman, 4 Mich. 291. But no tribunal can exercise judicial power, unless it is to decide according to its judgment; and it is difficult to discover any principle of justice which can require a magistrate to enter upon the execution of a statute when he believes it to be invalid, especially when he must thereby subject himself to prosecution, without any indemnity in the law if it proves to be invalid. Undoubtedly when the highest courts in the land hesitate to declare a law unconstitutional, and allow much weight to the legislative judgment, the inferior courts should be still more reluctant to exercise this power, and a becoming modesty would at least be expected of those judicial officers who have not been trained to the investigation of legal and constitutional questions. But in any case a judge or justice, being free from doubt in his own mind, and unfettered by any judicial decision properly binding upon him, must follow his own sense of duty upon constitutional as well as upon any other questions. See Miller v. State, 3 Ohio, N. 8. 483; Pim v. Nicholson, 6 Ohio, n. 8. 180; Mayberry v. Kelly, 1 Kansas, 116. In the case last cited it is said: “ • It is claimed by counsel for the plaintiff in error, that the point raised by the instruction is, that inferior courts and ministerial officers have no right to judge of the constitutionality of a law passed by a legislature. But is this law? If so, a court created to interpret the law must disregard the constitution in forming its opinions. The constitution is law, the fundamental law, and must as much be taken into consideration by a justice of the peace as by any other tribunal. When two laws apparently conflict, it is the duty of all courts to construe them. If the conflict is irreconcilable, they must decide which is to prevail; and the constitution is not an exception to this rule of construction. If a law were passed in open, flagrant violation of the constitution, should a justice of the peace regard the law, and pay no attention to the constitutional provision ? If that is his duty in a plain case, is it less so when the construction becomes more difficult ?" 1 Hoover v. Wood. 9 Ind. 287; Ireland v. Turnpike Co., 19 Ohio, N. s. 373.