Ahrens v. Clark

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Ahrens v. Clark
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued March 29, 1948
Decided June 21, 1948
Full case name Ahrens et al. v. Clark, Atty. Gen.
Citations 335 U.S. 188 (more)
68 S. Ct. 1443; 92 L. Ed. 2d 1898; 1948 U.S. LEXIS 1936
Unless detained persons are within the territorial jurisdiction of the federal district court they petition, the court lacks jurisdiction to issue a writ of habeas corpus.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Fred M. Vinson
Associate Justices
Hugo Black · Stanley F. Reed
Felix Frankfurter · William O. Douglas
Frank Murphy · Robert H. Jackson
Wiley B. Rutledge · Harold H. Burton
Case opinions
Majority Douglas
Dissent Rutledge, joined by Black, Murphy
Laws applied
28 U.S.C. 452, 28 U.S.C.A. 452
Overruled by
Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court of Kentucky, 410 U.S. 484 (1973) (in part)

Ahrens v. Clark, 335 U.S. 188 (1948), was a United States Supreme Court case that denied a federal district court jurisdiction to issue a writ of habeas corpus if the person detained is not within the territorial jurisdiction of the court when the petition is filed. The 6-3 ruling[1] was handed down on June 21, 1948, with the majority opinion written by Justice William O. Douglas and the dissent written by Justice Wiley Blount Rutledge.

The decision was substantially overturned in Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court of Kentucky (1973), which held that territorial jurisdiction is derived from the location of the custodian, those responsible for the indictment, rather than the location of the detention.


The United States District Court for the District of Columbia had been petitioned by 120 German detainees being held on Ellis Island for a writ of habeas corpus to challenge in court their detention and imminent deportation. The deportation order had been issued by Attorney General Tom C. Clark, using wartime powers granted by President Harry Truman in the waning months of World War II. The detainees argued that the US Court for DC had jurisdiction because they were being held "subject to the custody and control" of the Attorney General. The government argued that their case should be dismissed because Ellis Island is outside of the territorial confines of the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court, the federal appeals courts, and the federal district courts had the power to grant writs of habeas corpus "within their respective jurisdictions"; the case hinged on whether the words "within their respective jurisdictions" implied a territorial limitation. The court held that they did.



Judge Wiley Blount Rutledge was concerned that the Court's decision was narrowly construing the great writ of habeas corpus.

He wrote:

If this is or is to become the law, the full ramifications of the decision are difficult to foresee. It would seem that a great contraction of the writ's classic scope and exposition has taken place,2 and much of its historic efficacy may have been destroyed. For if absence of the body from the jurisdiction is alone conclusive against existence of power to issue the writ, what of the case where the place of imprisonment, whether by private or public action, is unknown? What also of the situation where that place is located in one district, but the jailer is present in and can be served with process only in another?3 And if the place of detention lies wholly outside the territorial limits of any federal jurisdiction, although the person or persons exercising restraint are clearly within reach of such authority, is there to be no remedy, even though it is American citizens who are wrongfully deprived of their liberty and Americans answerable to no other power who deprive them of it, whether purporting to act officially or otherwise? In all these cases may the jailers stand in defiance of federal judicial power, and plead either the accident of the locus of detention outside the court's territorial limitations, or their own astuteness in so selecting the place, to nullify judicial competence?[2]


The case was newly significant in the 21st century because the question of territorial jurisdiction arose during the U.S. War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks. The United States detained hundreds of foreign captives at a US Navy facility in Guantanamo Bay, which it held was outside the territorial jurisdiction of all federal district courts. Detainees petitioned the federal courts for habeas corpus challenges of their detention, and some cases reached the US Supreme Court.

Justice John Paul Stevens had clerked for Justice Wiley Rutledge during the term Ahrens v. Clark was decided. He helped draft Justice Rutledge's dissenting opinion in the case and knew his reasoning. He also knew of Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court (1973), in which the Supreme Court held:

The writ of habeas corpus does not act upon the prisoner who seeks relief, but upon the person who holds him in what is alleged to be unlawful custody... [T]he language of Section 2241(a) requires nothing more than that the court issuing the writ have jurisdiction over the custodian. So long as the custodian can be reached by service of process, the court can issue a writ ‘within its jurisdiction’ requiring that the prisoner be brought before the court for a hearing on his claim, or requiring that he be released outright from custody, even if the prisoner himself is confined outside the court's territorial jurisdiction...[3]

Justice Stevens used his background from the cases when drafting the majority opinion in Rasul v. Bush (2004). The Court held that the US courts had jurisdiction in the US Circuit Court for the District of Columbia over the officers of the executive branch who were the policymakers and ultimate custodians of the detainees and the facility at Guantanamo.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pohlman, H. L. (2008). "Chapter 3: Aliens Detained Abroad". Terrorism and the Constitution : The Post-9/11 Cases. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 167–175. ISBN 978-0-7425-6040-6. OCLC 141484797.
  2. ^ Ahrens v. Clark, 335 U.S. 188 (1948).  This article incorporates public domain material from this U.S government document.
  3. ^ Braden v. 30th Judicial Circuit Court of KY, ACLU, ProCon.org, updated 28 December 2009, accessed 24 January 2013

External links[edit]