Commentary by Jon Roland
The opinion in this case falters on the non sequitur that because a U.S. official has the duty to defend persons in his custody, therefore the U.S. Congress has the power to make it a federal crime to kill or injure such persons, within the territory of a state, and to prosecute such offense in a federal court. That it has the duty is clear, but it also has an adequate remedy, which is to prosecute the offense under state law in a state court. The State of Texas had exclusive jurisdiction in this case.
The opinion starts off well when it states:
Although the constitution contains no grant, general or specific, to congress of the power to provide for the punishment of crimes, except piracies and felonies on the high seas, offenses against the law of nations, treason, and counterfeiting the securities and current coin of the United States, no one doubts the power of congress to provide for the punishment of all crimes and offenses against the United States, whether committed within one of the states of the Union or within territory over which congress has plenary and exclusive jurisdiction. To accomplish this end, congress has the right to enact laws for the arrest and commitment of those accused of any such crime or offense, and for holding them in safe custody until indictment and trial; and persons arrested and held pursuant to such laws are in the exclusive custody of the United States, and are not subject to the judicial process or executive warrant of any state. ... The United States, having the absolute right to hold such prisoners, have an equal duty to protect them, while so held, against assault or injury from any quarter. The existence of that duty on the part of the government necessarily implies a corresponding right of the prisoners to be so protected; and this right of the prisoners is a right secured to them by the constitution and laws of the United States. ...
However, the phrase "no one doubts" is a warning of loose logic. Clearly, some do doubt, especially when it leads to the conclusion of this court.
The Court did acknowledge an important point in the chain of argument:
It was held that a conspiracy of individuals to injure, oppress, and intimidate citizens of the United States, with intent to deprive them of life and liberty without due process of law, did not come within the statute, nor under the power of congress, because the rights of life and liberty were not granted by the constitution, but were natural and inalienable rights of man; and that the fourteenth amendment of the constitution, declaring that no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, added nothing to the rights of one citizen as against another, but simply furnished an additional guaranty against any encroachment by the states upon the fundamental rights which belong to every citizen as a member of society. It was of these fundamental rights of life and liberty, not created by or dependent on the constitution, that the court said: 'Sovereignty, for this purpose, rests alone with the states. It is no more the duty or within the power of the United States to punish for a conspiracy to falsely imprison or murder within a state than it would be to punish for false imprisonment or murder itself.' U. S. v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 553 , 554.
The whole scope and effect of this series of decisions is that, while certain fundamental rights, recognized and declared, but not granted or created, in some of the amendments to the constitution, are thereby guarantied only against violation or abridgment by the United States or by the state, as the case may be, and cannot therefore be affirmatively enforced by congress against unlawful acts of individuals, yet that every right created by, arising under, or dependent upon the constitution of the United States, may be protected and enforced by congress by such means and in such manner as congress, in the exercise of the correlative duty of protection, or of the legislative powers conferred upon it by the constitution, may, in its discretion, deem most eligible and best adapted to attain the object.
The seed of the problem in this chain of reasoning comes, however, from that baneful precedent:
Among the powers which the constitution expressly confers upon congress is the power to make all laws necessary and proper for carrying into execution the powers specifically granted to it, and all other powers vested by the constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof. In the exercise of this general power of legislation congress may use any means, appearing to it most eligible and appropriate, which are adapted to the end to be accomplished, and are consistent with the letter and the spirit of the constitution. McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 421. ...
Upon this question, the court has no doubt. As was said by Chief Justice MARSHALL in the great case of McCulloch v. Maryland: 'The government of the Union, though limited in its powers, is supreme within its sphere of action.' 'No trace is to be found in the constitution of an intention to create a dependence of the government of the Union on those of the states, for the execution of the great powers assigned to it. Its means are adequate to its ends; and on those means alone was it expected to rely for the accomplishment of its ends. To impose on it the necessity of resorting to means which it cannot control, which another government may furnish or withhold, would render its course precarious, the result of its measures uncertain, and create a dependence on other governments, which might disappoint its most important designs, and is incompatible with the language of the constitution.' 4 Wheat. 316, 405, 424.
The opinion error, in this case, as in McCulloch, is conflating the delegation of a power with the outcome for which such a power might be exercised. A delegation of a power is authorization of a particular method, not of all methods which might be required to achieve a result for which the method might be applied. The decision, while better than affirming the conviction, should have been to dismiss rather than remand.
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