United States v. Shipp

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United States v. Shipp
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Argued December 4–5, 1906
Decided December 24, 1906
Full case nameUnited States v. John F. Shipp, et al.
Citations203 U.S. 563 (more)
27 S. Ct. 165; 51 L. Ed. 319
6 found guilty of contempt of court (the Supreme Court).
Court membership
Chief Justice
Melville Fuller
Associate Justices
John M. Harlan · David J. Brewer
Edward D. White · Rufus W. Peckham
Joseph McKenna · Oliver W. Holmes Jr.
William R. Day · William H. Moody
Case opinion
MajorityHolmes, joined by Fuller, Harlan, White, Brewer, Day, Peckham, McKenna
Moody took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563 (1906), was a ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States with regard to a lynching in Chattanooga, Tennessee.[1] As of 2020, it remains the only Supreme Court criminal trial in history.


Ed Johnson, a black man, had been convicted in Hamilton County, Tennessee, of the rape of a white woman on February 11, 1906 and sentenced to death. On March 3, 1906, Johnson filed a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that his constitutional rights had been violated. Specifically, he alleged that all blacks had been systematically excluded from both the grand jury considering the original indictment against him and the trial jury considering his case. He further argued that he had been substantively denied the right to counsel, as his lawyer had been too intimidated by the threats of mob violence to file motions for a change of venue, a continuance, or a new trial, all of which could be reasonably expected under the circumstances. Johnson asserted he was thus about to be deprived of his life without due process.[2]

Johnson's petition was initially denied on March 10, 1906, and he was remanded to the custody of Hamilton County Sheriff Joseph F. Shipp, with the stipulation for Johnson to be given 10 days to file further appeals.[3] His appeal to the Supreme Court was granted by Justice Harlan on March 17 and subsequently by the entire court on March 19. However, despite being advised of the ruling by telegram on that date and the case and the ruling being given full coverage by Chattanooga's evening newspapers that day, the case purported that Shipp and his chief jailer nonetheless allowed a mob to enter the Hamilton County Jail and to lynch Johnson on the city's Walnut Street Bridge.

The court felt that the action constituted contempt of court in that Sheriff Shipp, with full knowledge of the court's ruling, chose to ignore his duties to protect a prisoner in his care.

Shipp's actions resulted in his prosecution by the US Department of Justice. Included as defendants were his chief jailer and the members of the lynch mob who could be reasonably identified. When the case came to the Supreme Court, the government was represented by both Solicitor General Henry M. Hoyt and Attorney General William H. Moody. Shipp's attorneys argued that the Supreme Court was not competent to hear the case, as it was now a party to the case in that it was involved in the action as a plaintiff rather than as a court.


In a decision written by Justice Holmes, the court held that it was not a party in any sense that would create a conflict of interest, as members of the court were not affected by Shipp's actions in any way in their persons (Shipp's actions were not a threat to the justices personally but to their ruling and the authority of the court) and so they were not "interested parties" in any sense that would affect their competence with regard to the case. The prosecution of Shipp was allowed to proceed. Justice Peckham, joined by Justices White and McKenna, dissented on the grounds that the only evidence for Shipp's criminal actions were the analysis from his testimony, which was circumstantial at best. Peckham argued that "To be free from any contempt of this Court, it was not necessary that the sheriff should have stood by the prisoner at the peril of his own life, or that he should have sacrificed it in an unsuccessful attempt against overwhelming odds to prevent the mob from taking the prisoner out of his custody."


The case took on special significance as the only criminal trial of the Supreme Court in its entire history. The main impact of the case was its reiteration of the principle that the Supreme Court could always intervene in state capital cases if there was a question of violation of the constitutional right to due process.

Sheriff Shipp and several other men were convicted of contempt of court. Shipp and two others were sentenced to 90 days imprisonment, and three other defendants were sentenced to 60 days imprisonment.[4] In the court's words, "Shipp not only made the work of the mob easy, but in effect aided and abbetted it."[5] However, when Shipp was released he still swore innocence and was welcomed back like a hero.[6] Threatened with violence, Johnson's two African-American lawyers had to leave the state, never to return.


Ninety-four years after the lynching, in February 2000, Hamilton County Criminal Judge Doug Meyer overturned Johnson's conviction after hearing arguments that Johnson did not receive a fair trial because of the all-white jury and the judge's refusal to move the trial from Chattanooga, where there was much publicity about the case.[7] On April 15, 2016, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a resolution, commending the valor of Johnson's legal defense and the federal intervention by President Theodore Roosevelt, the Justice Department and the Supreme Court and deploring the actions of Shipp and the lynch mob which he abetted in the "untimely lynching of Mr. Ed Johnson."[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ United States v. Shipp, 203 U.S. 563 (1906). See also United States v. Shipp, 214 U.S. 386 (1909).
  2. ^ Curriden 2009.
  3. ^ Chattanooga Times Article on Shipp Case
  4. ^ Curriden & Phillips 2001, p. 335.
  5. ^ Curriden & Phillips 2001, pp. 286, 333, 335.
  6. ^ "Read about the lynching of Ed Johnson in Chattanooga". Tennessee 4 Me. The Tennessee State Museum.
  7. ^ Green, Amy (February 25, 2000). "1906 Tennessee Conviction Overturned". Associated Press. Retrieved June 13, 2010.
  8. ^ "Legislature Passes Ed Johnson Resolution; Group To Remember Lynching Victim At Walnut Street Bridge Gathering". The Chattanoogan, www.chattanoogan.com. April 16, 2016. Retrieved December 21, 2018.


Further reading[edit]

  • Stern, M. (1947). "Contempt Liability for Disobedience of Defective Court Order". Brooklyn Law Review. 13: 166.
  • Slater, Stephanie L. (2018). Edward Terry Sanford: A Tennessean on the US Supreme Court (3, illustrated ed.). University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 9781621903697.

External links[edit]