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United States Supreme Court

339 U.S. 763

Johnson  v.  Eisentrager

 Argued: April 17, 1950. --- Decided: June 5, 1950

Mr. Justice BLACK, with whom Mr. Justice DOUGLAS and Mr. Justice BURTON concur, dissenting.

Not only is United States citizenship a 'high privilege,' it is a priceless treasure. For that citizenship is enriched beyond price by our goal of equal justice under law-equal justice not for citizens alone, but for all persons coming within the ambit of our power. This ideal gave birth to the constitutional provision for an independent judiciary with authority to check abuses of executive power and to issue writs of habeas corpus liberating persons illegally imprisoned. [1]

This case tests the power of courts to exercise habeas corpus jurisdiction on behalf of aliens, imprisoned in Germany, under sentences imposed by the executive through military tribunals. The trial court held that, because the persons involved are imprisoned overseas, it had no territorial jurisdiction even to consider their petitions. The Court of Appeals reversed the District Court's dismissal on the ground that the judicial rather than the executive branch of government is vested with final authority to determine the legality of imprisonment for crime. 84 U.S.App.D.C. 396, 174 F.2d 961. This Court now affirms the District Court's dismissal. I agree with the Court of Appeals and need add little to the cogent reasons given for its decision. The board reach of today's opinion, however, requires discussion.

First. In Part IV of its opinion the Court apparently bases its holding that the District Court was without jurisdiction on its own conclusion that the petition for habeas corpus failed to show facts authorizing the relief prayed for. But jurisdiction of a federal district court does not depend on whether the initial pleading sufficiently states a cause of action; if a court has jurisdiction of subject matter and parties, it should proceed to try the case, beginning with consideration of the pleadings. Bell v. Hood, 327 U.S. 678, 682-683, 66 S.Ct. 773, 776, 90 L.Ed. 939; Ex parte Kawato, 317 U.S. 69, 71, 63 S.Ct. 115, 116, 87 L.Ed. 58. [2] Therefore Part IV of the opinion is wholly irrelevant and lends no support whatever to the Court's holding that the District Court was without jurisdiction.

Moreover, the question of whether the petition showed on its face that these prisoners had violated the laws of war, even if it were relevant, is not properly before this Court. The trial court did not reach that question because it concluded that their imprisonment outside its district barred it even from considering the petition; its doors were 'summarily closed.' And in reversing, the Court of Appeals specifically rejected requests that it consider the sufficiency of the petition, properly remanding the cause to the District Court for that determination-just as this Court did in the Hood and Kawato cases, supra. The Government's petition for certiorari here presented no question except that of jurisdiction; and neither party has argued, orally or in briefs, that this Court should pass on the sufficiency of the petition. To decide this unargued question under these circumstances seems an unwarranted and highly improper deviation from ordinary judicial procedure. At the very least, fairness requires that the Court hear argument on this point.

Despite these objections, the Court now proceeds to find a 'war crime' in the fact that after Germany had surrendered these prisoners gave certain information to Japanese military forces. I am not convinced that this unargued question is correctly decided. The petition alleges that when the information was given, the accused were 'under the control of the armed forces of the Japanese Empire,' in Japanese-occupied territory. Whether obedience to commands of their Japanese superiors would in itself constitute 'unlawful' belligerency in violation of the laws of war is not so simple a question as the Court assumes. The alleged circumstances, if proven, would place these Germans in much the same position as patriotic French, Dutch, or Norwegian soldiers who fought on with the British after their homelands officially surrendered to Nazi Germany. There is not the slightest intimation that the accused were spies, or engaged in cruelty, torture, or any conduct other than that which soldiers or civilians might properly perform when entangled in their country's war. It must be remembered that legitimate 'acts of warfare,' however murderous, do not justify criminal conviction. In Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 30-31, 63 S.Ct. 2, 11-12, 87 L.Ed. 3, we cautioned that military tribunals can punish only 'unlawful' combatants; it is no 'crime' to be a soldier. See also Dow v. Johnson, 100 U.S. 158, 169, 25 L.Ed. 632; Ford v. Surget, 97 U.S. 594, 605-606, 24 L.Ed. 1018. Certainly decisions by the trial court and the Court of Appeals concerning applicability of that principle to these facts would be helpful, as would briefs and arguments by the adversary parties. It should not be decided by this Court now without that assistance, particularly since failure to remand deprives these petitioners of any right to meet alleged deficiencies by amending their petitions.

Second. In Parts I, II, and III of its opinion, the Court apparently holds that no American court can even consider the jurisdiction of the military tribunal to convict and sentence these prisoners for the alleged crime. Except insofar as this holding depends on the gratuitous conclusions in Part IV (and I cannot tell how far it does), it is based on the facts that (1) they were enemy aliens who were belligerents when captured, and (2) they were captured, tried, and imprisoned outside our realm, never having been in the United States.

The contention that enemy alien belligerents have no standing whatever to contest conviction for war crimes by habeas corpus proceedings has twice been emphatically rejected by a unanimous Court. In Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1, 63 S.Ct. 2, 87 L.Ed. 3, we held that status as an enemy alien did not foreclose 'consideration by the courts of petitioners' contentions that the Constitution and laws of the United States constitutionally enacted forbid their trial by military commission.' Id., 317 U.S. at 25, 63 S.Ct. at 9, 87 L.Ed. 3. This we did in the face of a presidential proclamation denying such prisoners access to our courts. Only after thus upholding jurisdiction of the courts to consider such habeas corpus petitions did we go on to deny those particular petitions upon a finding that the prisoners had been convicted by a military tribunal of competent jurisdiction for conduct that we found constituted an actual violation of the law of war. Similarly, in Re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1, 66 S.Ct. 340, 90 L.Ed. 499, we held that courts could inquire whether a military commission, promptly after hostilities had ceased, had lawful authority to try and condemn a Japanese general charged with violating the law of war before hostilities had ceased. There we stated: '(T)he Executive branch of the government could not, unless there was suspension of the writ, withdraw from the courts the duty and power to make such inquiry into the authority of the commission as may be made by habeas corpus.' Id., 327 U.S. at 9, 66 S.Ct. at 345, 90 L.Ed. 499. That we went on to deny the requested writ, as in the Quirin case, in no way detracts from the clear holding that habeas corpus jurisdiction is available even to belligerent aliens convicted by a military tribunal for an offense committed in actual acts of warfare.

Since the Court expressly disavows conflict with the Quirin or Yamashita decisions, it must be relying not on the status of these petitioners as alien enemy belligerents but rather on the fact that they were captured, tried and imprisoned outside our territory. The Court cannot, and despite its rhetoric on the point does not, deny that if they were imprisoned in the United States our courts would clearly have jurisdiction to hear their habeas corpus complaints. Does a prisoner's right to test legality of a sentence then depend on where the Government chooses to imprison him? Certainly the Quirin and Yamashita opinions lend no support to that conclusion, for in upholding jurisdiction they place no reliance whatever on territorial location. The Court is fashioning wholly indefensible doctrine if it permits the executive branch, by deciding where its prisoners will be tried and imprisoned, to deprive all federal courts of their power to protect against a federal executive's illegal incarcerations.

If the opinion thus means, and it apparently does, that these petitioners are deprived of the privilege of habeas corpus solely because they were convicted and imprisoned overseas, the Court is adopting a broad and dangerous principle. The range of that principle is underlined by the argument of the Government brief that habeas corpus is not even available for American citizens convicted and imprisoned in Germany by American military tribunals. While the Court wisely disclaims any such necessary effect for its holding, rejection of the Government's argument is certainly made difficult by the logic of today's opinion. Conceivably a majority may hereafter find citizenship a sufficient substitute for territorial jurisdiction and thus permit courts to protect Americans from illegal sentences. But the Court's opinion inescapably denies courts power to afford the least bit of protection for any alien who is subject to our occupation government abroad, even if he is neither enemy nor belligerent and even after peace is officially declared. [3]

Third. It has always been recognized that actual warfare can be conducted successfully only if those in command are left the most ample independence in the theatre of operations. Our Constitution is not so impractical or inflexible that it unduly restricts such necessary independence. It would be fantastic to suggest that alien enemies could hail our military leaders into judicial tribunals to account for their day to day activities on the battlefront. Active fighting forces must be free to fight while hostilities are in progress. But that undisputable axiom has no bearing on this case or the general problem from which it arises.

When a foreign enemy surrenders, the situation changes markedly. If our country decides to occupy conquered territory either temporarily or permanently, it assumes the problem of deciding how the subjugated people will be ruled, what laws will govern, who will promulgate them, and what governmental agency of ours will see that they are properly administered. This responsibility immediately raises questions concerning the extent to which our domestic laws, constitutional and statutory, are transplanted abroad. Probably no one would suggest, and certainly I would not, that this nation either must or should attempt to apply every constitutional provision of the Bill of Rights in controlling temporarily occupied countries. But that does not mean that the Constitution is wholly inapplicable in foreign territories that we occupy and govern. See Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 21 S.Ct. 770, 45 L.Ed. 1088.

The question here involves a far narrower issue. Springing from recognition that our government is composed of three separate and independent branches, it is whether the judiciary has power in habeas corpus proceedings to test the legality of criminal sentences imposed by the executive through military tribunals in a country which we have occupied for years. The extent of such a judicial test of legality under charges like these, as we have already held in the Yamashita case, is of most limited scope. We ask only whether the military tribunal was legally constituted and whether it had jurisdiction to impose punishment for the conduct charged. Such a limited habeas corpus review is the right of every citizen of the United States, civilian or soldier (unless the Court adopts the Government's argument that Americans imprisoned abroad have lost their right to habeas corpus). Any contention that a similarly limited use of habeas corpus for these prisoners would somehow give them a preferred position in the law cannot be taken seriously.

Though the scope of habeas corpus review of military tribunal sentences is narrow, I think it should not be denied to these petitioners and others like them. We control that part of Germany we occupy. These prisoners were convicted by our own military tribunals under our own Articles of War, years after hostilities had ceased. However illegal their sentences might be, they can expect no relief from German courts or any other branch of the German Government we permit to function. Only our own courts can inquire into the legality of their imprisonment. Perhaps, as some nations believe, there is merit in leaving the administration of criminal laws to executive and military agencies completely free from judicial scrutiny. Our Constitution has emphatically expressed a contrary policy.

As the Court points out, Paul was fortunate enough to be a Roman citizen when he was made the victim of prejudicial charges; that privileged status afforded him an appeal to Rome, with a right to meet his 'accusers face to face.' Acts 25:16. But other martyrized disciples were not so fortunate. Our Constitution has led people everywhere to hope and believe that wherever our laws control, all people, whether our citizens or not, would have an equal chance before the bar of criminal justice.

Conquest by the United States, unlike conquest by many other nations, does not mean tyranny. For our people 'choose to maintain their greatness by justice rather than violence.' [4] Our constitutional principles are such that their mandate of equal justice under law should be applied as well when we occupy lands across the sea as when our flag flew only over thirteen colonies. Our nation proclaims a belief in the dignity of human beings as such, no matter what their nationality or where they happen to live. Habeas corpus, as an instrument to protect against illegal imprisonment, is written into the Constitution. Its use by courts cannot in my judgment be constitutionally abridged by Executive or by Congress. I would hold that our courts can exercise it whenever any United States official illegally imprisons any person in any land we govern. [5] Courts should not for any reason abdicate this, the loftiest power with which the Constitution has endowed them.


^1  Article I, § 9, cl. 2 of the Constitution provides: 'The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.'

^2  Cases are occasionally dismissed where the claims are 'wholly insubstantial and frivolous', Bell v. Hood, supra, but the very complexity of this Court's opinion belies any such classification of this petition.

^3  The Court indicates that not even today can a nonresident German or Japanese bring even a civil suit in American courts. With this restrictive philosophy compare Ex parte Kawato, 317 U.S. 69, 63 S.Ct. 115, 87 L.Ed. 58; see also McKenna v. Fisk, 1 How. 241, 249, 11 L.Ed. 117.

^4  This goal for government is not new. According to Tacitus, it was achieved by another people almost 2,000 years ago. See 2 Works of Tacitus 326 (Oxford trans., New York, 1869).

^5  See the concurring opinion of Mr. Justice Douglas in Koki Hirota v. MacArthur, 338 U.S. 197, 199, 69 S.Ct. 197, 1238, 93 L.Ed. 1902.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).