The U.S. Marshal Service and The Supreme Court

This post was written by Katie Beaver, a student intern working with civilian records.  It is a follow-up to A few good lawmen.  

The American South was a particularly tumultuous area after the Civil War and during the occupation of the U.S. Army. Slaves became freedmen and gained the rights of citizenship per the Constitution. Such newfound freedoms resulted in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan who terrorized not only blacks, but Republicans and Unionists as well. Federal Marshals in this region were charged with the difficult task of enforcing Reconstruction policy and pursuing Klan members. Before 1877, the marshals had the support of the U.S. Army. However, when Hayes won the 1876 Election, he was forced to remove troops from the South and allow the southern states to regain their full autonomy. This essentially left the freedmen—and the marshals acting on their behalf—abandoned without any federal support. In 1877, acting upon the administration’s orders, Attorney General Charles Devens requested the resignation of several marshals who continued to pursue the rights of Southern blacks and attempt to bring members of the Klan to justice. J.M. Pierce of Mississippi was one such marshal, who had personally enlisted for the freedmans’ cause and subsequently resigned after pressure from the Department of Justice. 

The  Supreme Court got involved in the dispute around Klan prosecutions. In 1872, a mob of Klansmen trapped a group of African Americans in a church during a celebration, shooting and killing 169 and taking twenty more as prisoners. Marshal Stephen Packard, under the restrictions of the federal government, was able to indict 72 of the perpetrators but only arrest nine of them. The four who were found guilty appealed to the Supreme Court who decided in U.S. v. Cruikshank that the evidence was not sufficient enough to prove that the attack was a result of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Additionally, they ruled that the federal government had no jurisdiction to interfere with the affairs of private citizens and that the states would have to determine their fate. In other words, the Klansmen were acquitted and set free, leaving the marshals with barely any legal or Constitutional support from the federal government.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle the marshals had to face during this era, however, was the lack of immunity from arrest by state officials. Even though the marshals were commissioned by the federal government, they were not protected from prosecution for acts they committed in the line of duty. This was a problem in certain regions where the state government had a hostile relationship with the federal government and searched for excuses to arrest marshals. Again, the Supreme Court interfered, this time on behalf of Deputy Marshal David Neagle. Neagle was commissioned by the Attorney General and his superiors (Marshal J.C. Franks) to ensure the safety of Supreme Court Justice Fields, who had been receiving frequent death threats. After an attempted attack on the Justice’s life, Neagle shot and killed the attacker. Neagle was subsequently arrested by the sheriff of the town and held on charges of murder. The District Court in California ordered Neagle released once it came to trial, but the California District Attorneys appealed to the Supreme Court. The Court, this time, ruled in favor of the Marshal Service. They decided that Neagle was, indeed, acting in the line of duty on behalf of the federal government and, most importantly, within the bounds of the U.S. Constitution. The Court articulated that justices took an oath to faithfully execute the laws, but could not possibly do this if they were killed, injured, or incapacitated. Thus, the marshals assigned to their protection were integral components of the rule of law. This decision helped loosen the restrictions around the marshals so they were less vulnerable to arrest by state officials for the acts committed against criminals, outlaws, and cowboys in the name of the United States government.

This post is based on documentation found in the series Appointment Files for Judicial Districts, 1853-1905, (NAID 734590), Office of the Attorney General, Department of Justice. Record Group 60, General Records of the Department of Justice.

Source: Calhoun, Frederick S. The Lawmen: United States Marshals and Their Deputies, 1789-1989. New York: Penguin Group, 1991.

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