In re Neagle

Justice Stephen J. Field: Original image from the Library of Congress; Digital Copy Courtesy of House Divided Project

Daniel Farber calls it “colorful enough to make a good movie script”, and indeed the court case Cunningham v. Neagle (1890) mentioned in Lincoln’s Constitution (Chicago, 2003) has the characteristics fit for a drama (133). Nevertheless, the case covers the extent of the executive branch’s “protective power” over state courts concerning the writ of habeas corpus. This was done to prevent the murder trial of U.S. Marshal David Neagle in California.

Cunningham v. Neagle controversial in its era, involves an incident where Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field was attacked by David Terry and Sarah Terry in a train heading towards San Francisco. Due to previous threats on Field’s life, he appointed U.S. Marshal David Neagle to protect him. David Terry had struck Justice Field in the head twice knocking him to the ground, when Neagle shot and killed Terry in order to protect the judge. The Daily Alta California on Wednesday, April 15, 1890 reports Sheriff Cunningham sent Neagle to jail and tried for murder in the state court. Neagle asked for federal habeas corpus as a way to prevent the trial.  Ultimately, Neagle was released on Justice Millers claim that the evidence, “[was] abundant that both Terry and his wife contemplated some attack upon Justice Field.” The court decision gave Neagle his freedom on the claim that he did his rightful duty as his protector and “assured that the nation’s laws would be faithfully executed.” A clear and detailed commentary concerning the court case and its outcome can be found in databases such as Lexis-Nexis (135 U.S. 1).

Paul Kens in, Justice Stephen Field: Shaping Liberty from the Gold Rush to the Gilded Age (University Press of Kansas, 1997) has biographical resources as well as Field’s legal history, providing a detailed account of the In re Neagle case, one of the few books focusing on Justice Field’s historical legacy rather than judicial career. Clare Vernon McKanna in, Race and Homicide in nineteenth- century California (University of Nevada Press, 2002) has a small focus on the case by looking at the attack through a 19th century perspective on the violent act committed by David Terry. However, all these book only give a small dedication to the scandalous aspects of the case, as it is wrapped around other, larger themes.

However, one of the few authors that focuses on the judicial importance of the court case is Dow Votaw’s article in the Western Political Quarterly (University of Utah). He defines the importance of In re Neagle as a form of preservation and strict enforcement of judicial law and executive power rights from the president. This court decision shaped the role of federal officers after a,”long saga of dueling, assault, voodoo, litigation, and attempted assassination that stretched over more than thirty years of the nineteenth century ” by state government against national government (948).

After a release of David Neagle by Justice Miller and Sawyer (with dissenting views from Justices Lamar and Fuller), the power to protect courts, judges and federal officers denied state courts the power to jail or arrest federal employees all the while defining and reinforcing the presidents protective powers.

This proved an incredible feat for Congress and the executive branch. By justifying Neagle’s actions, Congress had a right to the protection of Supreme Court Justices. Since judges symbolize upholders of the law, jeopardizing their lives also threatens Constitutional law. It exemplified U.S. Marshal Neagle’s actions as heroic and an act of duty, not an act of murder.


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