Today marks the 207th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case of United States v. Hudson in which the Supreme Court forbid Federal Courts from prosecuting individuals for common law crimes. This decision effectively limited Federal Court’s power and only allowed them to prosecute crimes that had been expressly authorized by Congress.
The Case behind United States v. Hudson is interesting to say the least. In 1806 and 1807 Barzillai Hudson and George Goodwin; editors of the Connecticut Currant, were indicted in Connecticut Federal District Court for the common law crime of Libel. In May of 1806, the Connecticut Currant had printed an article in which Mr. Hudson and Mr. Goodwin accused President Thomas Jefferson of authorizing, and the United States Congress of secretly voting to give a $2 million-dollar gift to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to entice him to make a treaty with Spain.
Mr. Hudson and Mr. Goodwin demurred their cases arguing the charge should be dismissed because the Federal District Court had no jurisdiction over common law crimes. A divided Federal Circuit Court certified the case to the Supreme Court on the issue.
The Supreme Court received the case without an oral argument, and rendered its judgment on February 13th, 1812. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Judiciary could not prosecute individuals for common law crimes. Justice William Johnson, writing the opinion of the Court ruled that, because the Federal Judiciary was created and limited by article III of the Constitution, it could not create crimes that were not expressly authorized by Congress. Thus, the Court ruled that Mr. Hudson and Mr. Goodwin had been improperly charged, and their case should be dismissed. However, the Court found only one exception to this general bar, namely that of the crime of contempt of court.
The decision in United States v. Hudson settled a long-standing dispute that existed between Federalist, and Democratic-Republicans about the limits of the federal judiciaries power. By 1812, the Supreme Court was primarily composed of Democratic-Republican judicial nominees, and settled the long-standing issue in favor of the Democratic-Republicans. Interestingly; while the judgment was unanimous, Justice Bushrod Washington took no part in the consideration of the case. At that time, it was exceedingly rare for the Supreme Court to render non-unanimous decisions. Thus, when Justice’s wished to express their dissatisfaction with a case, they would note that they took no part in consideration of the case. Justice Washington, as the only other federalist appointed judge besides legendary Chief Justice John Marshall, was likely expressing his dissatisfaction with the decision before dissenting became common.
While the decision in United States v. Hudson set some fundamental limits of Federal Judicial power, its impact has long since faded from public knowledge. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can ensure that your rights are properly protected.
Written By Hunter J. White
 United States v. Hudson & Goodwin, 11 U.S. (7 Cranch) 32 (1812)