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As governments must provide some authority to declare what the unwritten law governing any transaction was, so they must provide some authority to declare what the written law governing any transaction means. Few statements of any rule or principle can be written out in such a way as to convey exactly the same impression to every mind. Thought is subtler than its expression. The meaning of written laws will therefore often be questioned.

An answer is sometimes attempted by the authority from which the law proceeded. A king declares what he intended by the terms of an ambiguous edict. A legislature passes an act to declare the meaning of a previous one. But meanwhile rights have accrued. Something has been done in reliance upon a certain construction of the law. If it was a right construction, then what was done was lawful, and no subsequent explanation of his intentions by the lawgiver can change this fact. Laws are addressed to the community at large, and their meaning must be determined once for all from the language used, however inadequate it may have been to express the real design of those who enacted them, unless that design so clearly appears, notwithstanding an unfortunate choice of words, as to compel an interpretation against the letter but in obedience to the spirit of the enactment. A "declaratory statute"--one declaring what a previous statute meant--is therefore, if it gives it a meaning unwarranted by its terms when so interpreted, only effectual as respects future transactions. As to the past, the meaning is for the courts, and while such a statute may aid, it cannot control them.

Are the courts to send such questions to a jury or shall the judges decide them?  The answer must be determined by considerations applicable to every sort of written paper. If the true construction of an ambiguous document be left to juries, it is evident that there would be no certainty that different results would not be reached in different cases, and probable that unanimity would seldom be attainable. If left to judges, a decision will certainly be reached and, it may be presumed, be reasoned out with care, while if the matter be one of public importance the grounds on which they proceed will be so expressed as to furnish a guide to others toward the same conclusion. The construction of all writings is therefore, by the Anglo-American common law, as by the judicial system of most countries, deemed, in case of a question affecting litigated rights, to belong of right to the judges. Their possession of this power in the United States is especially necessary in respect to written law.

In every government there must be some human voice speaking with supreme authority. It may be that of one man or of many men. The essential thing is that it should be a personal utterance, proceeding from persons to whom, by acknowledged law or custom, submission is due, and one that, if need be, can be enforced by the whole power of the State.

The fundamental principle of American government, as laid down in the words of Harrington in the oldest of our State Constitutions, after which many of the rest, and that of the United States as well, have been largely patterned, is that it is one of "laws and not of men."[Footnote: Constitution of Massachusetts, Part the First, Art. XXX, quoted more fully in Chapter II.] Laws, however, must be administered by men. Their meaning, if it be uncertain, must be determined by men. It must be the subject, as the same Constitution twice affirms, of "impartial interpretation."[Footnote: _Id_., Preamble, and Part the First, Art. XXIX.] This interpretation is really what gives them force. It is the personal utterance of one speaking for the State, and who speaks the last word. It was simply following English precedent to give this power to the courts as respects legislative enactments. But the principle which required it inevitably extended with equal force to constitutional provisions. The people who adopt written constitutions for their government put their work in a form which must often give rise to questions as to what they intended to express. They rely on the judiciary to secure their enforcement, and the judiciary must enforce them according to what it understands their meaning to be.

There is but a step from interpretation to enlargement. Every statute is passed to accomplish something. If the object is clear, the rules of Anglo-American law allow the court that may be called on to apply it to extend its operation to cases within the purpose evidently intended, although the language used is inadequate fully to express it. This is styled giving effect to "the equity of the statute." Even violence can be done to the words, if so only can this judge-discovered intent be made effectual. The rules governing judicial interpretation of statute law fill a good-sized volume.

As the Roman lawyers worked out by force of logic and analogy an extensive system of private law from the meagre fabric of the Twelve Tables, so under the lead of American lawyers American judges have applied the processes familiar in the development of unwritten law to the development of our written law, both statutory and constitutional.

Carlyle said that the Roman republic was allowed so long a day because on emergencies the constitution was suspended by a dictatorship. The American republics have a right, upon this theory, to a still longer one. With them the Constitution need not be temporarily set aside on an emergency. It may simply be permanently enlarged or limited by judicial construction. A Constitution is the garment which a nation wears. Whether written or unwritten, it must grow with its growth. As Mr. Bryce has put it: "Human affairs being what they are, there must be a loophole for expansion or extension in some part of every scheme of government; and if the Constitution is Rigid, Flexibility must be supplied from the minds of the Judges."[Footnote: "Studies in History and Jurisprudence," 197.]

The Constitution of the United States declares that no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts. This proposition being the major premise, Chief Justice Marshall added the minor premise that every charter of a private corporation is a contract, and completed the syllogism by the conclusion that no State can pass any law impairing the obligation of such charters. The counsel who opposed this doctrine urged that every one must acknowledge that neither the men who framed the Constitution nor the people who adopted it ever thought that the word "contracts," as so used, embraced "charters." Be it so, was Marshall's answer, that proves nothing unless you can go farther and satisfy the court that if they had contemplated the construction we put upon it they would have used words to exclude it.[Footnote: Dartmouth College _v._ Woodward, 4 Wheaton's Reports, 518.]

The acquisition of foreign territory is a matter not especially provided for in the Constitution of the United States. Jefferson hesitated to make the Louisiana purchase on this account, and was quite inclined to think, when he did make it, that he had transcended the bounds of his authority. The courts gave the Constitution a different interpretation, and stamped this upon it as permanently as if it had been a birthmark. It was done by Marshall in a single sentence. "The Constitution," he observed, "confers absolutely on the government of the Union the powers of making war and of making treaties: consequently that government possesses the power of acquiring territory either by conquest or by treaty."[Footnote: American Insurance Co. _v._ Canter, 1 Peters' Reports, 511, 542.]

In the course of the same opinion, the great Chief Justice led the way toward the doctrine, to be developed later, that the manner in which such territory was to be held and its inhabitants governed need not be such as the Constitution prescribed for the territory within one of the United States. It was to be prescribed by Congress under its power "to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States." Congress had set up a Legislative Council in the Territory of Florida, and the Legislative Council had established a court of admiralty, with judges holding office for four years. The case in hand turned upon the effect of a judgment of that court. It was contended at the bar that it had no effect, because by the express terms of the Constitution the judicial power of the United States extended to all cases of admiralty jurisdiction, and must be vested in one Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress might ordain. "We have only," was Marshall's reply, "to pursue this subject one step further to perceive that this provision of the Constitution does not apply to it. The next sentence declares that 'the judges both of the Supreme and inferior courts shall hold their offices during good behaviour.' The Judges of the Superior Courts of Florida hold their offices for four years. These Courts, then, are not constitutional Courts in which the judicial power conferred by the Constitution on the general government can be deposited. They are incapable of receiving it. They are legislative Courts, created in virtue of the general right of sovereignty which exists in the government, or in virtue of that clause which enables Congress to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory belonging to the United States. The jurisdiction with which they are invested is not a part of that judicial power which is defined in the third article of the Constitution, but is conferred by Congress in the execution of those general powers which that body possesses over the territories of the United States. Although admiralty jurisdiction can be exercised in the States in those Courts only which are established in pursuance of the third article of the Constitution, the same limitation does not extend to the territories. In legislating for them, Congress exercises the combined powers of the general and of a State government."[Footnote: 'American Insurance Co. _v._ Canter, 1 Peters' Reports, 511, 546.]

It will be perceived that the argument here was that the Florida court did not exercise any of the judicial power of the United States because it could not, and that it could not because the judges were not commissioned for life. This left unanswered the deeper question whether any act of Congress could serve to support a court existing under authority of the United States, the judges of which were to hold office only for a term of years. It was assumed that the provision for a life tenure did not apply to the Florida judges, because if it did the court would be illegally constituted. Whether it was legally or illegally constituted was not discussed, except for the general reference to the power of Congress to legislate for the territories and exercise the rights of sovereignty over territory newly acquired by contest or treaty.

On this decision has been built up our present system of governing territorial dependencies at the will of Congress.[Footnote: Mormon Church _v._ United States, 136 United States Reports, 1, 43; Dorr _vs._ United States, 195 United States Reports, 138, 141.]

Marshall's was the last appointment made to the Supreme bench from the Federalist party. It was not many years before that party disappeared from the face of the earth. Jefferson put three men there representing the other school of political doctrine,[Footnote: Among Jefferson's papers is a description of five men whom he especially considered with reference to filling the first vacancy which occurred during his administration. Politics figures largely in the sketch of each. As to William Johnson, whom he selected, it is noted that he is of "republican convictions and of good nerves in his political principles." American Historical Review, III, 282.] and his appointments were followed by others of a similar nature, until in 1830, after Mr. Justice Baldwin had taken his seat, it became evident that the nationalizing tendencies which the great Chief Justice from the beginning of the century had impressed upon its opinions were likely soon to cease. He apprehended himself that the court would come to decline jurisdiction in the cases ordinarily presented over writs of error to reverse the judgments of State courts.[Footnote: Proceedings: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2d Series, XIV, 342.] In the following year he thought seriously of resigning. He disliked, he wrote to Mr. Justice Story, to leave him almost alone to represent the old school of thought, but he adds, "the solemn convictions of my judgment, sustained by some pride of character, admonish me not to hazard the disgrace of continuing in office a mere inefficient pageant."[Footnote: Proceedings Massachusetts Historical Society, 2d Series, XIV, 347.]

The next Chief Justice, while far from being of Marshall's school, was not one to attempt to overthrow what he had done. In Ableman _v._ Booth,[Footnote: 21 Howard's Reports, 506.] he insisted on the supremacy of the courts of the United States over those of the States with the utmost firmness, and defended the doctrine on principle with force and ability. The Supreme Court, however, under Taney, was not looked on with much favor by the survivors of the old Federalists. "I do not," wrote Chancellor Kent in 1845 to Justice Story, "regard their decisions (yours always excepted) with much reverence, and for a number of the associates I feel habitual scorn and contempt."[Footnote: Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2d Series, XIV, 420.]

Our State constitutions generally guarantee the citizen against deprivation of his rights without "due process of law" or "due course of law." A similar provision was made for the United States by the fifth amendment to their Constitution, and since 1868 the fourteenth amendment has established the same rule inflexibly for every State. What is due process of law?  It is for the courts to say, and while they have cautiously refrained from assuming to give any precise and exhaustive definition, they have, in many instances, enforced the guaranty at the cost of declaring some statute which they held incompatible with it to be no law. They have also, and much more frequently, supported some act of government claimed to contravene it, and which, according to the ancient common law of England, would contravene it, because in their opinion this ancient law had been outgrown.

Sir Edward Coke, whom no expounder of the English common law outranks in authority, in his "Institutes," in treating of _Magna Charta_, referred to the phrase _per legem terrae_, as equivalent to "by the law of the land (that is, to speak it once for all) by the due course and process of law." It is incontestable that due course and process of law in England at the time when the American colonies were planted was understood to require the action of a grand jury before any one could be put on trial for a felony. Some of our States have abolished grand juries in whole or part. To review a capital sentence for murder in one of these States, a writ of error was prayed out from the Supreme Court of the United States in 1883. The constitutionality of the State law was sustained. In disposing of the case the court did not controvert the position that by the English common law no man could be tried for murder unless on a presentment or indictment proceeding from a grand jury. But, said the opinion, while that is due process of law which had the sanction of settled usage, both in England and in this country, at the time when our early American constitutions were adopted in the eighteenth century, it by no means follows that nothing else can be. To hold that every feature of such procedure "is essential to due process of law would be to deny every quality of the law but its age, and to render it incapable of progress or improvement. It would be to stamp upon our jurisprudence the unchangeableness attributed to the laws of the Medes and Persians.... It is most consonant to the true philosophy of our historical legal institutions to say that the spirit of personal liberty and individual right, which they embodied, was preserved and developed by a progressive growth and wise adaptation to new circumstances and situations of the forms and processes found fit to give, from time to time, new expression and greater effect to modern ideas of self-government.... It follows that any legal proceeding enforced by public authority, whether sanctioned by age and custom or newly devised in the discretion of the legislative power in furtherance of the general public good, which regards and preserves these principles of liberty and justice, must be held to be due process of law."[Footnote: Hurtado _v._ California, 110 United States Reports, 513, 528, 529, 530, 537.]

Many of our State Constitutions specify certain rights as inherent and indefeasible, and among them that "of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property." What is property? American courts have said that it includes the right of every one to work for others at such wages as he may choose to accept. One of them, in supporting a decree for an injunction against combined action by a labor union to deprive non-union men of a chance to work, by force or intimidation, notwithstanding a statute abrogating the common law rule making such acts a criminal conspiracy, has put it thus:

  The right to the free use of his hands is the workman's property, as much as the rich man's right to the undisturbed income from his factory, houses, and lands. By his work he earns present subsistence for himself and family. His savings may result in accumulations which will make him as rich in houses and lands as his employer. This right of acquiring property is an inherent, indefeasible right of the workman. To exercise it, he must have the unrestricted privilege of working for such employer as he chooses, at such wages as he chooses to accept. This is one of the rights guaranteed to him by our Declaration of Rights. It is a right of which the legislature cannot deprive him, one which the law of no trades union can take from him, and one which it is the bounden duty of the courts to protect. The one most concerned in jealously maintaining this freedom is the workman himself.[Footnote: Erdman _v._ Mitchell, 207 Pennsylvania State Reports, 79; 56 Atlantic Reporter, 331.]

But, as already suggested in the preceding chapter, the judges whose opinions have vitalized and enlarged our written law by reading into it some new meaning or application have but echoed the voice of the bar.

The greatest achievements of Marshall in this direction were really but a statement of his approbation of positions laid down before him by Daniel Webster. In the early stages of the Dartmouth College case, when it was before the State courts in New Hampshire, it was Webster and his associates, Jeremiah Mason and Jeremiah Smith, both lawyers of the highest rank, who first put forward the doctrine that the charter of a private corporation was a contract; and when the cause came before the Supreme Court of the United States it fell to the lot of Webster to bring it to the attention of the great Chief Justice.[Footnote: "Works of Daniel Webster," V, 497.] So in the Florida case it was he, in supporting the cause of the prevailing party, who suggested that the Territory of Florida, though owned by the United States, was no part of them. "By the law of England," he went on to say, "when possession is taken of territories, the king, _Jure Corona_, has the power of legislation until parliament shall interfere. Congress have the _Jus Corona_ in this case, and Florida was to be governed by Congress as she thought proper."[Footnote: American Insurance Co. _v._ Canter, 1 Peters' Reports, 611, 538.]

This argument did not spend its force in its effect on Marshall. When, after the lapse of two generations, greater problems of the relations of the United States to territory newly acquired from Spain arose, it was, as has been said above, made one of the cornerstones of the opinion of the same court which determined what they were.[Footnote: Downes _v._ Bidwell, 182 United States Reports, 244, 265.]

So in the Hurtado case, which has been described at length, no description of due process of law was found better and none is better than that given by Webster so many years before in the Dartmouth College case. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire, from whose judgment that cause came up by writ of error, had held--and on that point its decision was final--that the change in the college charter was no violation of the bill of rights embodied in the Constitution of that state. This, following _Magna Charta_, provided (Part I, Art. 15) that no subject should be "despoiled or deprived of his property, immunities, or privileges, put out of the protection of the law, exiled, or deprived of his life, liberty or estate, but by the judgment of his peers or the law of the land." _Magna Charta_ was wrung from a tyrant king. So, said the State court, this article was inserted to protect the citizens against the abuse of the executive power. When it speaks of the law of the land it means the law of New Hampshire, and that is whatever the legislature of New Hampshire chooses to enact, so long as it contravenes no other constitutional provision.

Webster, in paving the way toward his claim that the charter was a contract, and, as a vested right of property, inviolable by a State, alluded to the sacredness of all rights under the guaranties to be found in our American system of constitutional government. It was not surprising that the Constitution of the United States should protect them in the way he asserted. All the States, and New Hampshire among them, had done the same in placing the great features of _Magna Charta_ in their bills of rights. What, he asked, was this law of the land by which all things were to be tried and judged?  This was his answer: "By the law of the land is most clearly intended the general law; a law which hears before it condemns; which proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgment only after trial. The meaning is that every citizen shall hold his life, liberty, property and immunities under the protection of the general rules which govern society. Everything which may pass under the form of an enactment is not therefore to be considered the law of the land. If this were so, acts of attainder, bills of pains and penalties, acts of confiscation, acts reversing judgments, and acts directly transferring one man's estate to another, legislative judgments, decrees and forfeitures in all possible forms, would be the law of the land."[Footnote: "Works of Daniel Webster," V, 486.]

In the opinion by Mr. Justice Mathews in Hurtado _v._ California he observes: "It is not every act, legislative in form, that is law. Law is something more than mere will exerted as an act of power. It must be not a special rule for a particular person or a particular case, but, in the language of Mr. Webster, in his familiar definition, 'the general law, a law which hears before it condemns, which proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgment only after trial,' so 'that every citizen shall hold his life, liberty, property and immunities under the protection of the general rules which govern society.'" [Footnote: Hurtado _v._ California, 110 United States Reports, 516, 535.]

Other instances might be mentioned, equally conspicuous, which will entitle Webster to the name given him by his contemporaries of "the expounder of the Constitution."[Footnote: See Article by Everett P. Wheeler on Constitutional Law of the United States as Moulded by Daniel Webster, in Yale Law Journal, Vol. XIII, p. 366, and in the 27th Annual Report of the New York State Bar Association.] No one American lawyer has done as much in that direction, but there are few of the greater ones who have not done something. As, however, the glory of a battle won is for the commander of the victorious forces, so the glory of adding a new meaning to a constitution at a vital point is, with the public, always for the judge whose opinion is the first to announce it. Who announced it to him they never know or soon forget.

The acknowledged possession by the judiciary of the power to interpret written law, and thus to delimit its effect, has led to a serious abuse in our methods of legislation. Statutes are often favorably reported and enacted, both in Congress and the State legislatures, which are admitted to be either of doubtful constitutionality or to contain expressions of doubtful meaning, on the plea that those are questions for the courts to settle. This has been aptly termed the method of the "_referendum_ to the courts in legislation."[Footnote: Thomas Thacher, Address before the State Bar Association of New Jersey, 1903.] It is unfair to them, so far as any question of the Constitution is concerned, since as soon as the measure is enacted a presumption arises that it is not unconstitutional. The courts will not hold otherwise without strong grounds. It comes to them with the benefit of a full legislative endorsement. It is unfair to the people, both as to questions of constitutionality and of interpretation. A statute can be so drawn as to need no interpretation, or none the outcome of which can be a matter of doubt to any competent lawyer. A legislature abandons its function when it enacts what it does not understand.

The Sherman Anti-Trust Act is an instance of legislation of this character. It forbids contracts "in restraint of trade or commerce" between the States. When the bill was reported it was objected in the House of Representatives that these terms were vague and uncertain. The chairman of the committee himself stated that just what contracts will be in restraint of such commerce would not and could not be known until the courts had construed and interpreted the phrase.

The real intent of those who inserted it was that it should not embrace contracts which were reasonable and not contrary to public policy. A similar term in the English Railway and Canals Traffic Act had received that interpretation in the English courts, and they supposed that our courts would follow those precedents.[Footnote: George F. Hoar, "Autobiography," II, 364.] The Supreme Court of the United States did construe it as embracing all contracts in restraint of inter-State trade, whether reasonable or unreasonable, fair or unfair.[Footnote: United States _v._ Joint Traffic Association, 171 United States Reports, 505, 570.] One of the justices who concurred in that opinion, in a subsequent case arising under the same statute intimated that on reconsideration he thought the view that had been thus adopted was wrong.[Footnote: Northern Securities Co. _v._ United States, 193 United States Reports, 197, 361.] The addition by those who drafted the bill of three or four words to make their intended meaning clear would have avoided a result unexpected by them and probably undesired, and relieved the court from deciding questions of doubtful construction involving important political considerations and immense pecuniary interests.