ArtIII.S2.C2.3.2.1 Noncompliance with and Disobedience of Supreme Court Orders by State Courts

Article III, Section 2, Clause 2:

In all Cases affecting Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, and those in which a State shall be a Party, the supreme Court shall have original Jurisdiction. In all the other Cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

The United States Supreme Court when deciding cases on review from the state courts usually remands the case to the state court when it reverses for "proceedings not inconsistent" with the Court's opinion. This disposition leaves open the possibility that unresolved issues of state law will be decided adversely to the party prevailing in the Supreme Court or that the state court will so interpret the facts or the Court's opinion to the detriment of the party prevailing in the Supreme Court. 1 When it is alleged that the state court has deviated from the Supreme Court's mandate, the party losing below may appeal again 2 or she may presumably apply for mandamus to compel compliance. 3 Statutorily, the Court may attempt to overcome state recalcitrance by a variety of specific forms of judgment. 4 If, however, the state courts simply defy the mandate of the Court, difficult problems face the Court, extending to the possibility of contempt citations. 5

The most spectacular disobedience of federal authority arose out of the conflict between the Cherokee Nation and the State of Georgia, which was seeking to remove the tribe and seize their lands with the active support of President Jackson. 6 In the first instance, after the Court had issued a writ of error to the Georgia Supreme Court to review the murder conviction of a Cherokee man, Corn Tassel, and after the writ was served, Corn Tassel was executed on the day set for the hearing, contrary to the federal law that a writ of error superseded sentence until the appeal was decided. 7 Two years later, Georgia again defied the Court, when, in Worcester v. Georgia, 8 it set aside the conviction of two missionaries for residing among the Cherokee Nation without a license. Despite the issuance of a special mandate to a local court to discharge the missionaries, they were not released, and the state's governor loudly proclaimed resistance. Consequently, the two remained in jail until they agreed to abandon further efforts for their discharge by federal authority and to leave the state, whereupon the governor pardoned them.

Footnotes

  1.  Hart & Wechsler (6th ed.), supra at 431-531. Notable examples include Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816); Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821); Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 506 (1859). For studies, see Note, Final Disposition of State Court Decisions Reversed and Remanded by the Supreme Court, October Term 1931 to October Term 1940, 55 Harv. L. Rev. 1357 (1942); Note, Evasion of Supreme Court Mandates in Cases Remanded to State Courts Since 1941, 67 Harv. L. Rev. 1251 (1954); Schneider, State Court Evasion of United States Supreme Court Mandates: A Reconsideration of the Evidence, 7 Valp. U. L. Rev. 191 (1973).
  2.  Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816). See 2 W. Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States 785-817 (1953); 1 C. Warren, The Supreme Court in United States History 442-453 (1926). For recent examples, see NAACP v. Alabama, 360 U.S. 240, 245 (1959); NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Flowers, 377 U.S. 288 (1964), after remand, 277 Ala. 89, 167 So.2d 171 (1964); Stanton v. Stanton, 429 U.S. 501 (1977); General Atomic Co. v. Felter, 436 U.S. 493 (1978).
  3.  It does not appear that mandamus has ever actually issued. See In re Blake, 175 U.S. 114 (1899); Ex parte Texas, 315 U.S. 8 (1942); Fisher v. Hurst, 333 U.S. 147 (1948); Lavender v. Clark, 329 U.S. 674 (1946); General Atomic Co. v. Felter, 436 U.S. 493 (1978).
  4.  Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat.) 304 (1816); McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 437 (1819); Gibbons v. Ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 239 (1824); Williams v. Bruffy, 102 U.S. 248 (1880) (entry of judgment); Tyler v. Maguire, 84 U.S. (17 Wall.) 253 (1873) (award of execution); Stanley v. Schwalby, 162 U.S. 255 (1896); Virginia Coupon Cases (Poindexter v. Greenhow), 114 U.S. 270 (1885) (remand with direction to enter a specific judgment). See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1651(a), 2106.
  5.  See 18 U.S.C. § 401. In United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563 (1906), 214 U.S. 386 (1909); 215 U.S. 580 (1909), on action by the Attorney General, the Court appointed a commissioner to take testimony, rendered judgment of conviction, and imposed sentence on a state sheriff who had conspired with others to cause the lynching of a prisoner in his custody after the Court had allowed an appeal from a circuit court's denial of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A question whether a probate judge was guilty of contempt of an order of the Court in failing to place certain candidates on the ballot was certified to the district court, over the objections of Justices Douglas and Harlan, who wished to follow the Shipp practice. In re Herndon, 394 U.S. 399 (1969). See In re Herndon, 325 F. Supp. 779 (M.D. Ala. 1971).
  6.  1 C. Warren, supra at 729-79.
  7.  Id. at 732-36.
  8.  31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832).