Georgia v. Stanton: The Background
Georgia v. Stanton is a landmark decision in which the United States Supreme court held that the American court system does not hold jurisdiction over political questions of enforcement of the Reconstruction Acts against the South.
The case of Georgia v. Stanton began when the state of Georgia filed a suit against the Secretary of War and two of his top generals. The suit filed by the State of Georgia was initiated as an effort to impede the enforcement of the Reconstruction acts following the culmination of the United States Civil War. The case of Georgia v. Stanton originally arose under the Court’s initial jurisdiction.
The Reconstruction Acts was part of an on-going process of Reconstruction following the end of the American Civil War. The Acts required each state in the South to draft a separate constitution which must be approved by Congress for enforcement. The Southern States were also required to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and offer voting rights to African Americans.
Georgia v. Stanton: The Question
The question of Georgia v. Stanton revolved around whether or not military laws invoked under the Reconstruction Acts deprived the state of Georgia its sovereignty. As a broad statement, the case of Georgia v. Stanton looked into at the Reconstruction Acts to determine if they were in line with the provisions of the United States Constitution.
Georgia v. Stanton: Decision
The United States Supreme Court in Georgia v. Stanton ruled that this was a political question and thus out of the jurisdiction of the judicial process. The state of Georgia sought rights of political characters and not the rights of property or the individual. Thus, the issue of Georgia v. Stanton was outside the domain of an equity court or law.
Because the case of Georgia v. Stanton found that the issue at hand was raised by the three southern States was indeed a political one, the court decided it did not maintain jurisdiction over the subject matter of the case.
Georgia v. Stanton
After the Civil War was over, the question remained: how could a rebel state, which had vociferously opposed enfranchising black people or ending slavery, be compelled to uphold the laws of the United States? One of the answers came in 1867, when a newly elected “radical” Congress passed a series of laws that became known as the Reconstruction Acts. These acts were designed not so much to bring the Union together as to punish the South for its conduct in the leadup to the Civil War and during the war itself. In Georgia v. Stanton, the court needed to look at whether it was even allowed to answer questions pertaining to the reconstruction of the union.
The Civil War's Aftermath
One of the first new Congressional laws passed after the Civil War was over was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which conferred a wide variety of new rights on black Americans. The first of the Reconstruction Acts was passed about a year later.
According to the First Reconstruction Act, which President Johnson vetoed but Congress passed with a veto-proof supermajority, the South was to be divided into five distinct military districts, rather than states, for the purposes of reconstruction. Each of these districts was to be headed up by a military commander drawn, of course, from Union forces, and was to be policed by Union troops.
The First Reconstruction Act also put conditions on states that wished to be re-admitted to the union. In order to gain re-admission (and, therefore, the vote for their citizens), each Southern state had to write a constitution that enfranchised black voters, and had to ratify the post-Civil War amendments granting rights to black people.
The Limit of Supreme Court Power
The Supreme Court decided in Georgia v. Stanton that the court did not have the authority to dictate terms for the reconstruction of the South. The state of Georgia had sued Stanton, then Secretary of War, saying that the Reconstruction Acts were unconstitutional and enshrined an illegal system of military governance in place of the existing civilian governmental apparatus.
In Georgia v. Stanton, the court said that it was only responsible for adjudicating disputes that involved private rights or private property, and that historically, courts had not been allowed to resolve disputes of a purely political character.
Effect of Georgia v. Stanton
Believing the decision in Georgia v. Stanton to have been made in error, and under the impression that the Reconstruction Act was illegal, President Johnson attempted to have some of the officials who approved of the Reconstruction Act fired. Congress immediately implemented another act, the Tenure of Office Act, designed to punish anyone who fired people who had been given Senate approval. When President Johnson moved to fire Stanton, his Secretary of War, Congress had him impeached for violating the Tenure of Office Act.
While Johnson was not removed from office, due to a failure to achieve the necessary 2/3 vote threshold, the impeachment was the first of a sitting President in United States history, and there would not be another until Bill Clinton's impeachment at the end of the 20th century.