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  • Article: Justice Jackson's Liberating Jurisprudence in Shaughnessy v. Mezei. By Erich Snow

    Justice Jackson's Liberating Jurisprudence in Shaughnessy v. Mezei


    At the beginning of any substantive law course law students are typically shown a traditional case where the law and common sense diverge, and the students are allowed to see how the law makes decisions in that field. Consider an old English case for murder, Regina v. Dudley & Stevens, in which Dudley, Stevens, another man called Brooks, and a boy named Richard Parker were stranded on a rowboat after a shipwreck. They had no way of knowing when or even if they would be rescued. The seamen were all starving and dying of thirst. The boy fell into a coma after drinking seawater and was about to die. Dudley and Stevens agreed that the boy would be killed for his flesh and blood, so that the men might live for a bit longer. Parker was killed and eaten and the four men were later rescued. They were rescued after the point at which, had they not eaten Parker’s body, they would have starved. The men were tried for murder, and found guilty, even though anyone who was familiar with the facts would immediately understand the murder to be justified. The reason this is the first case law students read in their Criminal Law casebooks is to show the decision-making process the court follows in that area of law. As a student, I have never accepted “that’s just the way it is” as an adequate explanation. When the law permits arbitrary or clearly wrong results, it is because the law has failed in some respect.

    In an immigration case decided in 1953 by the Supreme Court of the United States called Shaughnessy v. United States ex rel. Mezei, the court uses a similar rote application of the law, which leads to a similarly “correct” result as in the Regina case. In the immigration case, Mr Mezei lived in the United States as a foreign citizen from 1923 to 1948. He left for Romania in 1948 to visit his ailing mother. Mr. Mezei was not allowed into Romania, but instead had to remain in Hungary while different visa attempts were made, unsuccessfully, both to enter Romania and to exit Hungary. Eventually, after nineteen months, Mr. Mezei attempted to return to his home in the United States. He was detained at Ellis Island, and the US government cited national security as the reason he was denied entry. Mr Mezei was not imprisoned per se; he was free to travel to any country besides the United States. However, after Mr. Mezei was denied entry into Great Britain, France, Hungary, and over twelve countries in South and Central America, it became clear that his situation was one of indefinite detention: a seemingly-unconstitutional prospect. The problem with this result, however, is that it is the correct one, inasmuch as the existing law was properly applied to Mr. Mezei’s case.

    Justice Jackson wrote a unique dissent to the Mezei decision in which he employed striking language as a tool, because legal analysis out of the context of the resulting indefinite detention would have led to the result the majority reached—clearly the wrong result in Justice Jackson’s esteem.

    Justice Robert H. Jackson served as the United States chief prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials in 1945 and 1946. Once he returned to the Supreme Court to resume his duties after the military war tribunal, Justice Jackson was far more cautious of procedural safeguards, and was far more likely to rule against government overreaching, having experienced the extreme version of rote application of the law during his time in West Germany prosecuting former Nazi leaders. The Mezei decision was written in 1953, one year before Jackson retired and 6 years after he returned from West Germany. This caution and protectiveness is apparent when Justice Jackson suggests that it would be more beneficial to live in a country which used Soviet substantive law and American procedural law, instead of American substantive law and Soviet procedural law. The failure in this case, he thought, was a failure to consider the arbitrary result of applying substantive law, and failure to apply procedural due process to Mr. Mezei’s entire situation in context.

    The dissent contains some beautiful language: “Since we proclaimed him a Samson who might pull down the pillars of our temple, we should not be surprised if peoples less prosperous, less strongly established, and less stable feared to take him off our timorous hands.” Justice Jackson doesn’t hold back his contempt: “Government counsel ingeniously argued that Ellis Island is his ‘refuge’ whence he is free to take leave in any direction except west. That might mean freedom, if only he were an amphibian.” What Justice Jackson’s dissent does not hold is any reference to law or jurisprudence (aside from one mention of Knauff v. Shaughnessy, but rather than following the law from Knauff, Justice Jackson lauds the fact that the court was able to avoid “perpetrating an injustice”). The dissent, which would not be accepted in any law school final exam, is an examination of American ideals. It takes a critical look at the Attorney General’s attempt to thwart what Justice Jackson sees as the best guard against tyranny—procedural due process protections.

    He cites no precedent aside from the Constitution itself (and even then he only cites it in a secondary or even tertiary sense). Justice Jackson is saying that the fact that this result is acceptable and legal in the American Legal System means the American Legal System itself is broken in a certain aspect. The first sentence of the dissent is “[f]ortunately it still is startling, in this country, to find a person held indefinitely in executive custody without accusation of crime or judicial trial . . . .” The last two sentences are “[i]t is inconceivable to me that this measure of simple justice and fair dealing would menace the security of this country. No one can make me believe that we are that far gone.” Justice Jackson’s optimism, not misplaced, is that the crack through which Mr. Mezei has fallen is reparable. The system is not terminally broken. He concedes that the law, properly applied, allows for this result. His contention is that the law, properly applied, shouldn’t lead to this result.

    Justice Jackson has to resort to compelling penmanship because the primary tools of the Supreme Court, namely, stare decisis, would land him in the same camp as the majority. This is liberating for Jackson, and his tone suggests a caged bird spreading its wings for the first time in a long time, or a master clockmaker dusting off their workbench and tools. This is why Justice Scalia is also compelling to read, and why Lord Mansfield the Scot is so difficult. The danger of only saying what the law is and not what it should be (historically saying what the law is has been the purview of the Supreme Court) is that common sense and the shifting ideals of a dynamic society are often left out. Rather, the jurisprudence is doomed to follow the course of society, but remain decades behind the Zeitgeist at any given time.

    This post originally appeared on Immigration Prof Blog. Reprinted with permission.

    About The Author

    Erich Snow is a second year law student at the University of San Francisco.

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