We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, Level 3
Start  |  WTP  | CCE
Howard Chandler Christy, Signing of the Constitution, Architect of the Capitol, House wing, east stairway
Lesson 16 Court Cases

Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
Facts of the Case:
In the wake of the Watergate affair, Congress attempted to ferret out corruption in political campaigns by restricting financial contributions to candidates. Among other things, the law set limits on the amount of money an individual could contribute to a single campaign and it required reporting of contributions above a certain threshold amount. The Federal Election Commission was created to enforce the statute.

Did the limits placed on electoral expenditures by the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, and related provisions of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, violate the First Amendment's freedom of speech and association clauses?

In this complicated case, the Court arrived at two important conclusions. First, it held that restrictions on individual contributions to political campaigns and candidates did not violate the First Amendment since the limitations of the FECA enhance the "integrity of our system of representative democracy" by guarding against unscrupulous practices. Second, the Court found that governmental restriction of independent expenditures in campaigns, the limitation on expenditures by candidates from their own personal or family resources, and the limitation on total campaign expenditures did violate the First Amendment. Since these practices do not necessarily enhance the potential for corruption that individual contributions to candidates do, the Court found that restricting them did not serve a government interest great enough to warrant a curtailment on free speech and association.

The Oyez Project, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)

Ex Parte Milligan (1866)
Facts of the Case:
Lambden P. Milligan was sentenced to death by a military commission in Indiana during the Civil War; he had engaged in acts of disloyalty. Milligan sought release through habeas corpus from a federal court.

Does a civil court have jurisdiction over a military tribunal?

Yes. Davis, speaking for the Court, held that trials of civilians by presidentially created military commissions are unconstitutional. Martial law cannot exist where the civil courts are operating.

The Oyez Project, Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. 2 (1866)

Ex Parte Quirin (1942)
Facts of the Case:
These cases concern Operation Pastorius, a failed attempt in June 1942 by Nazi agents to sabotage various U.S. targets. Following the declaration of war between the United States and Germany, eight German residents, Richard Quirin, Ernst Burger, George Dasch, Herbert Haupt, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Keiling, Herman Neubauer, and Werener Thiel, received training on sabotage at a school near Berlin. The men traveled to the United States via submarine. On the night of June 13, 1942, Burger, Heinrich, Quirin, and Dasch landed near Long Island, New York wearing German uniforms and carrying explosives. On the night of June 17, 1942, the remaining four came ashore in similar fashion at Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Shortly after the landings, Burger and Dasch backed out of the mission. Dasch turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All eight conspirators were subsequently arrested and, on the orders of President Franklin Roosevelt, tried by military commission. The commission found all eight men guilty and sentenced them to death. Because of their confessions and cooperation, President Roosevelt later commuted Burger and Dasch's sentences to life in prison. Arguing that the President exceeded his power in ordering the commission and that the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the Constitution protect their rights to a regular trial, seven of the eight conspirators, not including Dasch, filed petitions for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court. Their claims were denied, and they appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Before the court ruled, however, they filed for hearing before the Supreme Court and, separately, filed petitions for habeas corpus directly with the Court. The Court, sitting in a special term, agreed to hear the cases.

Did the President exceed his authority in ordering a trial by military commission for the German saboteurs, thereby violating their rights under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments?

No. In a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice Harlan Fisk Stone, the Court concluded that the conspirators, as spies without uniform whose purpose was sabotage, violated the law of war and were therefore unlawful enemy combatants. Noting that Congress had, under the Articles of War, authorized trial by military commission for unlawful enemy combatants, the Court therefore determined that the President had not exceeded his power. Furthermore, the Court asserted that the Fifth and Sixth Amendments "did not enlarge the right to jury trial" beyond those cases where it was understood by the framers to have been appropriate. Therefore, because the amendments cannot be read "as either abolishing all trials by military tribunals, save those of the personnel of our own armed forces, or, what in effect comes to the same thing, as imposing on all such tribunals the necessity of proceeding against unlawful enemy belligerents only on presentment and trial by jury," the rights of the conspirators were not violated.

The Oyez Project, Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942)

Guinn v. United States (1915)
Facts of the Case:
The Oklahoma Constitution, while appearing to treat all voters equally, allowed an exemption to the literacy requirement for those voters whose grandfathers had either been eligible to vote prior to January 1, 1866 or were then a resident of "some foreign nation," or were soldiers. It was an exemption that favored white voters while it disfranchised black voters, most of whose grandfathers had been slaves and therefore unable to vote before 1866.

Are these kinds of exemptions to the literacy requirements a violation of the Fifteenth Amendment?

Yes. Justice Edward White went on to strike down the grandfather clause. He saw the Oklahoma law for what it was--a bald-faced attempt to disenfranchise blacks. Justice White wrote that the act "inherently brings" discrimination based on race "into existence since it is based purely on a period of time before the enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment and makes that period the controlling and dominant test of the right of suffrage.

238 U.S. 347 (1915)

Hamdan v. Rumsfeld (2006)
Facts of the Case:
Salim Ahmed Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former chauffeur, was captured by Afghani forces and imprisoned by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay. He filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court to challenge his detention. Before the district court ruled on the petition, he received a hearing from a military tribunal, which designated him an enemy combatant. A few months later, the district court granted Hamdan's habeas petition, ruling that he must first be given a hearing to determine whether he was a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention before he could be tried by a military commission. The Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed the decision, however, finding that the Geneva Convention could not be enforced in federal court and that the establishment of military tribunals had been authorized by Congress and was therefore not unconstitutional.

May the rights protected by the Geneva Convention be enforced in federal court through habeas corpus petitions? Was the military commission established to try Hamdan and others for alleged war crimes in the War on Terror authorized by the Congress or the inherent powers of the president?

Yes. No. The Supreme Court, in a 5-to-3 decision authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, held that neither an act of Congress nor the inherent powers of the executive laid out in the Constitution expressly authorized the sort of military commission at issue in this case. Absent that express authorization, the commission had to comply with the ordinary laws of the United States and the laws of war. The Geneva Convention, as a part of the ordinary laws of war, could therefore be enforced by the Supreme Court, along with the statutory Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hamdan's exclusion from certain parts of his trial deemed classified by the military commission violated both of these, and the trial was therefore illegal. Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented. Chief Justice John Roberts, who participated in the case while serving on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, did not take part in the decision.

The Oyez Project, Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, 548 U.S. ___ (2006)

Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004)
Facts of the Case:
In the fall of 2001, Yaser Hamdi, an American citizen, was arrested by the United States military in Afghanistan. He was accused of fighting for the Taliban against the U.S., declared an "enemy combatant," and transfered to a military prison in Virginia. Frank Dunham, Jr., a defense attorney in Virginia, filed a petition to have Hamdi's case heard in federal district court there, first on his own and then for Hamdi's father, in an attempt to have Hamdi's detention declared unconstitutional. He argued that the government had violated Hamdi's Fifth Amendment right to due process by holding him indefinitely and not giving him access to an attorney or a trial. The government countered that the executive branch had the right, during wartime, to declare people who fight against the United States "enemy combatants" and thus restrict their access to the court system. The district court ruled for Hamdi, telling the government to release him. On appeal, a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed, finding that the separation of powers required federal courts to practice restraint during wartime because "the executive and legislative branches are organized to supervise the conduct of overseas conflict in a way that the judiciary simply is not." The panel therefore found that it should defer to the Executive Branch's "enemy combatant" determination.

Did the government violate Hamdi's Fifth Amendment right to due process by holding him indefinitely, without access to an attorney, based solely on an executive branch declaration that he was an "enemy combatant" who fought against the United States? Does the separation of powers doctrine require federal courts to defer to executive branch determinations that an American citizen is an "enemy combatant?"

Yes and no. In an opinion backed by a four-justice plurality and partly joined by two additional justices, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote that although Congress authorized Hamdi's detention, Fifth Amendment due process guarantees a citizen held in the United States as an enemy combatant the right to contest that detention before a neutral decisionmaker. The plurality rejected the government's argument that the separation-of-powers prevents the judiciary from hearing Hamdi's challenge. Justice David Souter, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, concurred with the plurality that Hamdi had the right to challenge in court his status as an enemy combatant. Souter and Ginsburg, however, disagreed with the plurality's view that Congress authorized Hamdi's detention. Justice Antonin Scalia issued a dissent joined by Justice John Paul Stevens. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented separately.

The Oyez Project, Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004)

Harper v. Virginia (1966)
Facts of the Case:
Annie E. Harper, a resident of Virginia, filed suit alleging that the state's poll tax was unconstitutional. After a three-judge district court dismissed the complaint, the case went to the Supreme Court. This case was decided together with Butts v. Harrison.

Did the Virginia poll tax violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

In a 6-to-3 decision, the Court held that making voter affluence an electoral standard violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Court found that wealth or fee-paying had no relation to voting qualifications. The Court also noted that the Equal Protection Clause was not "shackled to the political theory of a particular era" and that notions of what constituted equal treatment under the clause were subject to change.

The Oyez Project, Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966)

McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003)
Facts of the Case:
In early 2002, a many years-long effort by Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold to reform the way that money is raised for--and spent during--political campaigns culminated in the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 (the so-called McCain-Feingold bill). Its key provisions were a) a ban on unrestricted ("soft money") donations made directly to political parties (often by corporations, unions, or well-heeled individuals) and on the solicitation of those donations by elected officials; b) limits on the advertising that unions, corporations, and non-profit organizations can engage in up to 60 days prior to an election; and c) restrictions on political parties' use of their funds for advertising on behalf of candidates (in the form of "issue ads" or "coordinated expenditures"). The campaign finance reform bill contained an unusual provision providing for an early federal trial and a direct appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, bypassing the typical federal judicial process. In May of that year, a special three-judge panel struck down portions of the act's ban on soft-money donations but upheld some of the its restrictions on the kind of advertising that parties can engage in. The ruling was stayed until the Supreme Court could hear and decide the resulting appeals.

1. Does the "soft money" ban of the Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 exceed Congress's authority to regulate elections under Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution and/or violate the First Amendment's protection of the freedom to speak? 2. Do regulations of the source, content, or timing of political advertising in the Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 violate the First Amendment's free speech clause?

With a few exceptions, the Court answered "no" to both questions in a 5-to-4 decision written by Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and John Paul Stevens. Because the regulations dealt mostly with soft-money contributions that were used to register voters and increase attendance at the polls, not with campaign expenditures (which are more explicitly a statement of political values and therefore deserve more protection), the Court held that the restriction on free speech was minimal. It then found that the restriction was justified by the government's legitimate interest in preventing "both the actual corruption threatened by large financial contributions and...the appearance of corruption" that might result from those contributions. In response to challenges that the law was too broad and unnecessarily regulated conduct that had not been shown to cause corruption (such as advertisements paid for by corporations or unions), the Court found that such regulation was necessary to prevent the groups from circumventing the law. Justices O'Connor and Stevens wrote that "money, like water, will always find an outlet" and that the government was therefore justified in taking steps to prevent schemes developed to get around the contribution limits. The Court also rejected the argument that Congress had exceeded its authority to regulate elections under Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution. The Court found that the law only affected state elections in which federal candidates were involved and also that it did not prevent states from creating separate election laws for state and local elections.

The Oyez Project, McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, 540 U.S. 93 (2003)

Texas v. White (1868)
Facts of the Case:
In 1851, Congress authorized the transfer of $10 million worth of United States bonds to the state of Texas. The bonds were payable to the state or bearer and were to be redeemable in 1864. In 1862, during the Civil War, an insurgent Texas legislature authorized the use of the bonds to purchase war supplies. Four years later, the reconstruction government tried to reclaim the bonds.

Was Texas a state in the union eligible to seek redress in the Supreme Court? Could Texas constitutionally reclaim the bonds?

Yes. In a 5-to-3 decision, the Court held that Texas did indeed have the right to bring suit and that individuals such as White had no claim to the bonds in question. The Court held that individual states could not unilaterally secede from the Union and that the acts of the insurgent Texas legislature--even if ratified by a majority of Texans--were "absolutely null." Even during the period of rebellion, however, the Court found that Texas continued to be a state.

The Oyez Project, Texas v White, 74 U.S. 700 (1869)

Lesson 16      What Is the Role of Political Parties in the Constitutional System?
Menu Unit Lesson Section Tools