Ex Parte Curtis

Ex parte Curtis
Supreme Court of the United States
Decided December 18, 1882
Full case name Ex parte Curtis
Citations 106 more)
1 S. Ct. 381; 27 L. Ed. 232; 16 Otto 371
Prior history From the Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York
The sixth section of the act of August 15, 1876, is not unconstitutional
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Waite, C.J., joined by Miller, Field, Harlan, Woods, Matthews, Gray, Blatchford
Dissent Bradley

Ex parte Curtis, 106 U.S. 371 (1882), is an 8-to-1 ruling by the United States Supreme Court which held that the Act of August 15, 1876, was a constitutionally valid exercise of the enumerated powers of the United States Congress under Article One, Section 8 of the United States Constitution.

The petitioner had been convicted of receiving money for political purposes in violation of the Act of August 15, 1876. The petitioner then asked the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus.

Majority opinion

Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote the opinion for the majority. The constitutional grounds under which the petitioner challenged the Act were not discussed by the Court. Chief Justice Waite noted that Congress had a lengthy history of passing laws restricting the rights and privileges of civil servants, and that the constitutionality of such laws had never before been challenged.

Next, Waite affirmed that Article One, Section 8 of the Constitution clearly gave Congress the power to determine for itself what was proper in the realm of reining in political corruption:

The evident purpose of Congress in all this class of enactments has been to promote efficiency and integrity in the discharge of official duties, and to maintain proper discipline in the public service. Clearly such a purpose is within the just scope of legislative power, and it is not easy to see why the act now under consideration does not come fairly within the legitimate means to such an end.[1]

Waite refused to pass judgment on the validity of the writ of habeas corpus, concluding that the Supreme Court's "jurisdiction is limited to the single question of the power of the court to commit the prisoner for the act of which he has been convicted."[2]


Associate Justice Joseph P. Bradley dissented. He concluded that the Act impermissibly infringed on the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association:

The offices of the government do not belong to the Legislative Department to dispose of on any conditions it may choose to impose. ... To deny to a man the privilege of associating and making joint contributions with such other citizens as he may choose, is an unjust restraint of his right to propagate and promote his views on public affairs. The freedom of speech and of the press, and that of assembling together to consult upon and discuss matters of public interest, and to join in petitioning for a redress of grievances, are expressly secured by the Constitution.The spirit of this clause covers and embraces the right of every citizen to engage in such discussions, and to promote the views of himself and his associates freely, without being trammelled by inconvenient restrictions. Such restrictions, in my judgment, are imposed by the law in question.[3]

Justice Bradley also concluded that the Act was overbroad, and that the same positive ends (ending political corruption) could have been achieved by alternative, narrower means.[4]


One of the interesting aspects of the majority's decision is that it believed Congress did not prohibit civil servants from making political donations on their own, but rather prohibited making such donations through their supervisors.[5] But Justice Bradley dissented, in part, by arguing that the law banned even voluntary contributions made through superiors (a ban he felt was unconstitutional).[5]

At least one commentator has concluded that Ex parte Curtis is still "good law."[5]


External links

  • Full text of the decision courtesy of Findlaw.com
  • Full text of the decision courtesy of Justia.com
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