Today marks the 111th anniversary of United States v. Shipp, the only criminal case conducted by the Supreme Court of the United States in its history. The case was landmark, not only for being the first and only criminal case that the Supreme Court ever conducted, but also because it is widely considered to be the birth of the modern writ of habeas corpus.
The Case 
The case behind United States v. Shipp was unfortunately all to common to the American criminal justice system. On January 23rd, 1906, Ms. Nevada Taylor was walking home to her father’s house from her job in downtown Chattanooga Tennessee. Ms. Taylor heard footsteps behind her, and before she could turn around, a gruff voice told her “if you scream I will kill you”, the assailant then put a leather belt around Ms. Taylors neck. Twenty minutes later, after regaining consciousness, Ms. Taylor ran home to her father to report that she had been raped.
News of the assault spread quickly. Newspapers reported that this was the most heinous crime in Chattanooga history, and that the assailant had been “negro brute”. This description was particularly interesting because Ms. Taylor had told the police she had never seen the assailant at this point and did not know if the person was white or black. The local Sheriff Joseph Shipp, and Judge Hamilton, both up for reelection and hearing calls for their resignation following the assault on Ms. Taylor, offered a $$375-dollar reward for the identity of the assailant (roughly $15,000 in today’s money). The following day, Will Hixion read about the reward, and reported that he had seen Ed Johnson carrying a leather strap near the crime scene.
Ed Johnson, was a nineteen-year-old African-American church carpenter. Mr. Johnson had only a 4th grade education, could not read or write, and had no criminal record. Mr. Johnson was arrested and interrogated. Mr. Johnson maintained his innocence and provided multiple alibi witnesses. City leaders knew that Mr. Johnsons life was in danger, as the papers had stirred up a lynch mob, so they moved Mr. Johnson to the city of Nashville pending trial. The night after Mr. Johnson was moved, the county jail was raided by hundreds of angry people seeking to lynch Mr. Johnson. The night of the first raid, Judge McReynolds who would be conducting the criminal trial plead with the mob to allow the courts to handle it.
Mr. Johnson was appointed two lawyers, neither of which practiced criminal law. Mr. Johnson also received the help of a former judge, and widely considered the best criminal defense lawyer in Tennessee at the time Lewis Sherman. Mr. Johnson was given twelve days to prepare a defense between when he was arrested, and when he was to be put on trial. Mr. Johnson sought to have a delay, and Judge McReynolds told him he would not grant it because the mob would only get angrier. Mr. Johnson then sought to have the trial moved to another venue besides Chattanooga, which the judge also denied.
Trial began February 6th, 1906. An all-white jury was impaneled, and the proceedings began. Ms. Taylor took the stand and told the jury what happened, and that she believed Mr. Johnson was the man who did it. Mr. Hixon then took the stand and testified he say Mr. Johnson near the scene at the time of the attack. However, on cross-examination it became clear that Mr. Hixon had not been near the scene of the crime when it occurred. It was further revealed that the morning the reward was announced, Mr. Hixon had gone to the church where Mr. Johnson worked, obtained his identity, leading to Mr. Johnsons arrest and hour later. The defense then called seventeen witnesses all attesting to seeing Mr. Johnson at a local saloon at the time of the attack.
The following day, a jury request was submitted to put Ms. Taylor back on the stand. The jury asked her to positively state that Mr. Johnson was the one who assaulted her. Ms. Taylor said she could not swear that he was the man, but she believed he was. A second juror began crying and demanded an affirmative answer. Ms. Taylor swore that she believed it was Mr. Johnson. A third juror then got up, exited the witness-box and attempted to assault Mr. Johnson. At the Close of trial, Mr. Johnson was found guilty, and Judge McReynolds sentenced him to death. Judge McReynolds informed Mr. Johnson that seeking to appeal his case would be fruitless and that Mr. Johnson could either die in jail, or die at the hands of the lynch mob.
Mr. Johnson heard the sentence, and stated “The jury says that I am guilty, and I guess I will have to suffer for what somebody else has done,” Johnson said. “I guess I will be punished for another person’s crime.”. Mr. Johnson was scheduled to be executed March 13th. Two black lawyers Noah W. Parden, and Styles L. Hutchins who had helped the defense team then agreed to take up the case and began the appeals process. The lawyers then went to Judge McReynolds and asked for a new trial, arguing that Mr. Johnson had not been given a fair trial, and his lawyer had been ineffective for waving his right to appeal. The judge refused to grant the new trial and admonished the men for trying. The lawyers then appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court who unanimously rejected the appeal.
The lawyers filed a petition in the U.S. District Court of Knoxville seeking habeas corpus relief. The lawyers asked the federal judge to review the constitutionality of Mr. Johnsons conviction. The lawyers argued Mr. Johnson’s rights had been violated by the manner in which to trial had been conducted, that only white men had been called to jury service, and only white men had been jurors, a juror had attacked him, that Mr. Johnson’s lawyer had been ineffective by waiving the right to appeal, and the treat of mob violence had significantly impacted the proceedings. At this time, habeas corpus petitions were widely regarded as useless as Congress had never granted powers to the federal judiciary to do anything if constitutional rights had been violated. Judge C.D. Clark agreed to hear the petition.
In an eight-hour hearing, the lawyers presented multiple witnesses and established the factual basis of every element of their petition. The State argued that Mr. Johnsons rights had not been violated, and Judge McReynolds testified the mob had not influenced him. The following day, Judge Clark agreed with the defense. However, the Judge felt that Congress had not given him the power to grant the relief sought, so he put a ten day stay on Mr. Johnsons execution and permitted a direct appeal to the Us. Supreme Court.
Papers began inflaming violence immediately. Judge McReynolds argued that the federal judge did not have the authority to stay the execution. Governor Cox granted a seven day stay of execution. Numerous judges, lawyers, and political figures were all quoted saying that the appeal was frivolous and it would quickly be rejected. A grand jury was then convened to investigate the attempted lynching against Mr. Johnson, but Judge McReynolds could not recall a single person in the mob he had stopped. The grand jury returned no indictments against the mob, but issues three indictments against three African American men for stealing mules.
The following night, a mob burned down Mr. Johnson’s lawyer’s offices, and assaulted their homes with rocks and gunshots. Mr. Johnson’s lawyers were shelter in a local minsters home, and with the help of one of the only black members of the Supreme Court Bar wrote the appeal to the Supreme Court. On March 17th Mr. Johnson’s lawyers argued their appeal directly to Justice John Marshall Harlan. The following day, Mr. Johnsons lawyers returned to Chattanooga with an order from the Supreme Court granting the appeal.
News of the appeal spread quickly. The night of March 19th dozens of armed men stormed the county jail where they found no resistance. Sheriff Shipp, ignoring the obvious signs of mob violence had dismissed all deputies and jailers except for one seventy-two-year-old man. Sheriff Shipp had also moved all other inmate off the floor where Mr. Johnson was held. The mob took three hours to break into Mr. Johnsons cell. The mob then dragged Mr. Johnson to a bridge spanning the Tennessee river and dividing the white and black section of town, put a noose around his neck, and gave him one last chance to confess.
However, Mr. Johnson did not confess. He stated “I am ready to die. But I never done it. I am going to tell the truth. I am not guilty. I am not guilty. I have said all the time that I did not do it and it is true. I was not there.” Then Johnson uttered his last words: “God bless you all. I am innocent.” The mob erupted into anger and lynched Mr. Johnson. Unappeased by his slow strangulation, the mob then opened fire on Mr. Johnson, putting more than fifty rounds into him. The deputy sheriff then dragged Mr. Johnson body to the entrance of the bridge on the back side of town, shot his body another five times, and pinned a note to his body reading “To Justice Harlan. Come get your nigger now.”
Aftermath and Trial
The aftermath was swift. Leaders condemned the mob violence, but popular opinion blamed the Supreme Court for intervening. Elections held on March 27th resulted in Judge McReynolds, and Sheriff Shipp reelected in landslides. Newspapers across the county reacted in horror to the violence that had occurred. What was particularly concerning was the open defiance of the Supreme Court. Not sense President Andrew Jackson openly defied the Supreme Court had such contempt been showed to the Supreme Courts edicts.
Attorney General William Moody sent two Secret Service members to investigate Mr. Johnson’s death. The investigation revealed that there had clearly been a conspiracy between Sheriff Shipp, his deputies, and the lynch mob to kill Mr. Johnson. In an unprecedented move, Moody filed a petition with the Supreme Court against Sheriff Shipp, six deputies, and nineteen leaders of the mob violence for contempt of Court. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court approved the petition and agreed they had original jurisdiction over the case meaning they would be the ones to conduct the criminal trial.
On October 15th, 1906 Sheriff Shipp and his fellow defendants, the only defendants in United States history to plea before the Supreme Court entered pleas of not guilty. Sheriff Shipp then made a motion to dismiss the case against him and his fellow defendants arguing that the Supreme Court had no authority to grant Mr. Johnson’s original habeas corpus petition thus they reasoned that the Court did not have jurisdiction or authority to even conduct a hearing to be held in contempt of. Thus, they concluded that they could not be held in contempt of an illegal order. This argument was widely supported by the American legal community and was in keeping with prior precedent.
However, the Supreme Court did not agree. On December 24th, 1906 a unanimous decision, Justice (and later Chief Justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes rejected the argument and established the Court had jurisdiction. The Court reasoned that the Court alone had the power to determine if they had jurisdiction, and until they chose to decline jurisdiction their order was lawful and binding. Thus, the Court reasoned that willfully disregarding their orders was contempt.
Sheriff Shipp and his fellow defendants Supreme Court trial officially began on February 12th, 1907. However, because the process of conducting a trial at the Supreme Court was uncharted territory, special arrangements were made. The trial was conducted in the Chattanooga Federal Court house, just nine blocks from where Mr. Johnson had been killed by the mob. The Justices did not attend the trial, but had daily recordings sent to them. Trial went on for more than a year with charges being dismissed against all but 8 of the mob members, and Sheriff Shipp. Sheriff Shipp would lose reelection in 1908 during trial. On March 2nd, 1909, lawyers and defendants gathered at the Supreme Court for closing arguments.
Attorney General Charles Bonaparte closed for the state, as Mr. Moddy had been appointed to the Supreme Court in 1906. In his closing argument Mr. Bonaparte said “This proceeding is unique in the history of courts,” he told the justices. “Its importance cannot be overestimated. Lynchings have occurred in defiance of state laws and state courts without attempt, or at most with only desultory attempt, to punish the lynchers.” Furthermore, said Bonaparte, “never in its history has an order of this court been disobeyed with such impunity. Justice is at an end when orders of the highest and most powerful court in the land are set at naught. Obedience to its mandates is essential to our institutions.”
The Justices then retired to deliberate, with Justice Moody recusing himself from deliberations. On May 24th, 1909, the Justices returned their verdict. The justices found Sheriff Shipp, and four of the mob leaders guilty of criminal contempt. Chief Justice Fuller delivered the opinion, and lambasted the Sheriff and mob leaders for their blood-lust, disregard, and mockery of justice. On November 15th, the defendants appeared again in front of the Supreme Court to hear their sentences. Sheriff Shipp and two mob leaders were given ninety-day prison sentences, and the remaining defendants were given sixty days.
Sheriff Shipp and his fellow defendants were all released early for good behavior and received a hero’s welcome when they returned to Chattanooga including a parade, and a statute in Sheriff Shipps honor which remains standing to this day. Judge McReynolds would later go on to serve eighteen years on congress representing Tennessee. None of those involved in the death of Mr. Johnson were ever charged with a crime. Mr. Johnson’s lawyers Noah W. Parden, and Styles L. Hutchins never returned to Chattanooga fearing mob violence. What is notable is every one of Mr. Johnson’s lawyer’s arguments would eventually be accepted and affirmed by the Supreme Court. Mr. Johnson body is buried in Missionary ridge Chattanooga. His head stone reads “God Bless you all. I AM A Innocent Man.” On the front, and “Farewell until we meet again in the sweet by and by” on the back. On August 15th, 2016, the Tennessee general assembly passed a resolution commending Mr. Johnson’s legal team, the justice department intervention, and condemning Sheriff Shipp’s actions.
United States v. Shipp was a landmark case in Supreme Court history, not only for its uniqueness as the only criminal trial in Supreme Court history, but also because of its character. The Supreme Court showed it would no longer tolerate contempt for its orders, and affirmed the rule of law over mob violence. United states v. Shipp also signaled that the Supreme Court was more willing to intervene in criminal cases, especially those in the south which regularly had situations identical to what had occurred to Mr. Johnson. Thankfully today the treat of mob justice is not as real as it was in our recent past. With Experienced Legal Representation, you can ensure your right are protected.
Written by Hunter J. White
 United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563, 27 S. Ct. 165 (1906)
 Curridan, Mark; Phillips, Leroy (2001). Contempt of Court: The Turn of the Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism.