Summation of Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (Excerpt)

[Summation of Charles Bonaparte, Attorney General of the United States, before the Supreme Court in Washington(3/2/1909):]

Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.

This proceeding is unique in the history of courts.  Its importance cannot be overestimated.

Lynchings have occurred in defiance of state laws and state courts without attempt, or at most with only desultory attempt, to punish the lynchers.

Perpetrators of such crimes have heretofore been censured only by public opinion; courts have remained silent.  Powerful as such opinion always is, severe as it has been in its rebuke of such deeds, it has been inadequate to check these outbreaks of lawlessness.

Only recently lynchings became so numerous that the whole country was aroused to earnest discussion of mob violence and a remedy for it.  It is indeed useless to seek relief unless the judiciary can punish those who snatch and kill the men it has imprisoned.  The arm of justice fetters men for years.  It strikes death to the murderer.  It can take property and life.  Must it confess it is too weak to protect those whom it has confined?

The arm can destroy.  Can it not protect?  If the life of one whom the law has taken into its custody is at the mercy of a mob the administration of justice becomes a mockery....

When this Court granted a stay of execution upon application of Johnson, it became its duty to protect him until his case should be disposed of.

It matters not with what crime he was charged.  It is immaterial what the evidence was at the trial.  Sentenced to death, Johnson came into this Court alleging that his constitutional rights had been invaded in the trial of his case, and upon this, the Supreme Court said he had a right to be, and would be, heard.

From that moment until his case should be decided, he was under the protection of this Court.  And when its mandate, issued for his protection, is defied, punishment of those guilty of such contempt must be certain and severe....

The question now before the Court is one of fact: Has the United States in the evidence which has been taken by the commissioner under order of this Court proved the allegations of the information?  Most of those allegations are established by agreement or undisputed evidence.
The only issues are:

(1) Were the sheriff and his deputies informed of the Supreme Court's decision to hear Johnson's appeal and did they have every reason to believe that an attempt would be made in the evening of March 19 by a mob to break into, and take Johnson from, the jail for the purpose of lynching him?

(2) Did the sheriff and his deputies commit acts and do things manifesting a purpose and disposition on their part to render it less difficult and less dangerous for the mob to lynch Johnson and aid and abet the mob?

(3) Were defendants, excepting Shipp and Gibson, members of the mob which lynched Johnson, or did they participate in the conspiracy?

(4) Did defendants in the things they did intend to show contempt of the order of this Court and to prevent it from hearing Johnson's appeal?.....

Never in its history has an order of this Court been disobeyed with such impunity.

It is not surprising that in the early history of this country, when the jurisdictions of the federal and the state governments were not clearly defined or well understood, states should have resisted the orders of this Court.
But it is remarkable that individuals should now undertake to defy the mandate of this great tribunal.

Justice is at an end when orders of the highest and most powerful court in the land are set at naught.  Obedience to its mandates is essential to our institutions.

Contempts such as this strike down the supremacy of law and order and undermine the foundations of our government.  Recurrence of such acts must be prevented.  The commission of the offense has been established, and punishment should be imposed in accordance with its gravity.

Where a riot and the lawless acts of those engaged therein are the direct result of opposition to the administration of the law by this Court, those who defy its mandate and participate in, or who knowingly fail to take the proper means within their official power and duty to prevent, acts of violence having for their object to, and which do, defeat the action of this Court are guilty of, and must be punished for, contempt.

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