The Debs Case.

The Debs case of 1895 arose out of a railway strike which had caused the President to dispatch troops to Chicago the previous year. Coincidentally with this move, the United States district attorney stationed there, acting upon orders from Washington, obtained an injunction from the United States circuit court forbidding the strike because of its interference with the mails and with interstate commerce. The question before the Supreme Court was whether this injunction, for violation of which Debs had been jailed for contempt of court, had been granted with jurisdiction. Conceding, in effect, that there was no statutory warrant for the injunction, the Court nevertheless validated it on the ground that the government was entitled thus to protect its property in the mails, and on a much broader ground which is stated in the following passage of Justice Brewer’s opinion for the Court: “Every government, entrusted, by the very terms of its being, with powers and duties to be exercised and discharged for the general welfare, has a right to apply to its own courts for any proper assistance in the exercise of the one and the discharge of the other. . . . While it is not the province of the government to interfere in any mere matter of private controversy between individuals, or to use its granted powers to enforce the rights of one against another, yet, whenever the wrongs complained of are such as affect the public at large, and are in respect of matters which by the Constitution are entrusted to the care of the Nation and concerning which the Nation owes the duty to all the citizens of securing to them their common rights, then the mere fact that the government has no pecuniary interest in the controversy is not sufficient to exclude it from the courts, or prevent it from taking measures therein to fully discharge those constitutional duties.”758

Footnotes

758
158 U.S., 584, 586. Some years earlier, in United States v. San Jacinto Tin Co., 125 U.S. 273, 279 (1888), the Court sustained the right of the Attorney General and his assistants to institute suits simply by virtue of their general official powers. “If,” the Court said, “the United States in any particular case has a just cause for calling upon the judiciary of the country, in any of its courts, for relief . . . the question of appealing to them must primarily be decided by the Attorney General . . . and if restrictions are to be placed upon the exercise of this authority it is for Congress to enact them.” Cf. Hayburn’s Case, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 409 (1792), in which the Court rejected Attorney General Randolph’s contention that he had the right ex officio to move for a writ of mandamus ordering the United States circuit court for Pennsylvania to put the Invalid Pension Act into effect. [Back to text]