United States v. Klein

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United States v. Klein
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Decided January 29, 1872
Full case name United States v. Klein
Citations 80 U.S. 128 (more)
20 L. Ed. 519; 1871 U.S. LEXIS 1319; 13 Wall. 128
The 1870 statute was unconstitutional and Congress had exceeded its power by invading the province of the judicial branch by prescribing the rule of decision in a particular cause. Independently, the statute was unconstitutional as an encroachment on the President's power to issue pardons.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Chase, joined by Nelson, Clifford, Swayne, Davis, Field, Strong
Dissent Miller, joined by Bradley

United States v. Klein, 80 U.S. 128 (1871), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case stemming from the American Civil War (1861–1865).


On December 8, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation offering a pardon to any person who had supported or fought for the Confederate Army, with full restoration of property rights, subject only to taking an oath of allegiance. The United States Congress had passed an act in 1863 that permitted an owner of property confiscated during the war to receive the proceeds from the sale of the confiscated property.


Based on the statute and the President's proclamation, V.F. Wilson took the oath of allegiance and honored it until his death on July 22, 1865. Mr. John A. Klein, administrator of Mr. Wilson's estate, then applied, properly, to the Court of Claims to recover the proceeds of the sale of property seized from Mr. Wilson.

Congress repealed the statute in 1867. The Court of Claims, in 1869, decided that Mr. Wilson's estate was entitled to the proceeds from the sale of his property. Then, in 1870, Congress passed a law that prohibited the use of a Presidential pardon as the basis for claiming sale proceeds, and further said that acceptance of such a pardon was evidence that the person pardoned did provide support to the South and was ineligible to recover sale proceeds. The United States appealed to the Supreme Court, based on the 1870 statute, which provided that since Mr. Wilson had accepted a Presidential pardon, his estate was not entitled to the sale proceeds.


In 1871, the Supreme Court ruled that the 1870 statute was unconstitutional and that Congress had exceeded its power by invading the province of the judicial branch by prescribing the rule of decision in a particular cause. The Court also ruled that Congress had impermissibly infringed the power of the executive branch by limiting the effect of a Presidential pardon.

Broadly speaking, Klein stands for the proposition that the legislative branch cannot impair the exclusive powers of another branch. Put another way, Klein recognizes and supports the fundamental value of separation of powers defined by the Constitution. Specifically, Klein means that Congress may not direct the outcome of a case by prescribing the rule of decision, nor may Congress impair the power and effect of a Presidential pardon. Read more broadly, Klein suggests, but does not state, that Congress may not use the Exceptions Clause to cripple the Court's ability to be the final arbiter of what the Constitution means; this conclusion is strengthened by the Court's holdings in City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507, and especially Dickerson v. United States, 530 U.S. 428.

The essence of the argument is one of separation of powers: that the Constitution vests the judicial power in the judicial branch, and that neither the legislative nor the executive branch may interfere with the functioning of the judiciary. When Congress passed a law that had the effect of prescribing the rule of decision in a particular cause, Congress "inadvertently passed the limit which separates the legislative from the judicial power." Klein, 80 U.S. at 147. As the Court says: "It is the intention of the Constitution that each of the great co-ordinate departments of the government — the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial — shall be, in its sphere, independent of the others." Id.

Justice Samuel F. Miller dissented, but only because he believed the respondent was not entitled to the property under the acts passed by Congress and the President's pardons. He wrote specifically (and since his opinion was joined by Justice Joseph P. Bradley, the decision of the Court in this respect was unanimous) that he agreed that "the act is unconstitutional, so far as it attempts to prescribe to the judiciary the effect to be given to an act of pardon or amnesty by the President. This power of pardon is confided to the President by the Constitution, and ... the legislative branch of the government cannot impair its force or effect in a judicial proceeding." Klein, 80 U.S. (13 Wall.) at 148.

Subsequent case law[edit]

The Supreme Court has since clarified that Congress may amend the law to direct a particular result in a case.[1]

In Robertson v. Seattle Audubon Society, 503 U.S. 429 (1992), environmental groups filed separate lawsuits against the United States Forest Service alleging that harvesting timber in forests home to an endangered owl violated several federal statutes. While litigation was pending, Congress passed legislation that, as a compromise, prevented harvesting in certain areas but also stated that "Congress hereby determines and directs that management [of the forests] according to subsections (b)(3) and (b)(5)...is adequate consideration for the purpose of meeting the statutory requirements that are the basis for [the two cases,]" which were identified by name and caption number. The Court of Appeals held that this was an unconstitutional intrusion on the judiciary's authority, based on United States v. Klein, because it directed a particular result in the two cases. The Supreme Court reversed, upholding the statutes, because it found that the statutes had amended the applicable law.[2]

In Bank Markazi v. Peterson, 578 U.S. ___ (2016), the Supreme Court upheld a law that abrogated all of a party's (Bank Markazi) defenses in a single case, identified by docket number, and directed that if certain criteria relating to ownership of a bank account were met, the money in the account would be used to pay compensation previous awarded by the courts against the bank. The bank argued that the court should rely on Klein to find that Congress had unconstitutionally directed the outcome of the case. The majority opinion found that more recent case law, particularly Robertson v. Seattle Audubon Society, has reduced the precedent value of Klein, but did clarify what role Klein still has in American jurisprudence:

Given the issue before the Court—Presidential pardons Congress sought to nullify by withdrawing federal-court jurisdiction—commentators have rightly read Klein to have at least this contemporary significance: Congress "may not exercise [its authority, including its power to regulate federal jurisdiction,] in a way that requires a federal court to act unconstitutionally." Meltzer, Congress, Courts, and Constitutional Remedies, 86 Geo. L. J. 2537, 2549 (1998). See also Tyler 112 ("Congress may not employ the courts in a way that forces them to become active participants in violating the Constitution.").

— Bank Markazi, 578 U.S. at ___ (2016)(slip op. at 15)(fn. 19)[3]


  1. ^ Bank Markazi v. Peterson, 578 U.S. ___, slip op. at 13-19 (United States Supreme Court 2016).
  2. ^ Robertson v. Seattle Audubon Soc'y, 503 U.S. 429 (United States Supreme Court 1992).
  3. ^ Bank Markazi v. Peterson, 578 U.S. ___, slip op. at 15 (United States Supreme Court 2016).

Further reading[edit]

  • Doidge, J. R. (1993). "Is Purely Retroactive Legislation Limited by the Separation of Powers?: Rethinking United States v. Klein". Cornell Law Review. 79: 910. ISSN 0010-8847. 

External links[edit]