Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath


Essay Read by Constituting America Founder, Janine Turner


The Framers of the United States Constitution considered ex post facto laws and bills of attainder so repugnant to justice that the document expressly bans them twice. In Article I, Section 9, the prohibition applies to the federal government. The subsequent section of the charter likewise targets state enactments. These provisions are a proto bill of rights in the body of the original document, which makes them unusual in that opponents of the Constitution often cited the lack of a bill of rights as the reason for their stance. Still more thought-provoking is the claim often made then that such laws would be invalid even without an express constitutional provision. That position required its advocates to appeal to higher principles of justice or law as limiting the power of legislatures.

Emblematic of that approach was the opinion of Justice Samuel Chase in the 1798 case of Calder v. Bull. The suit involved a Connecticut case in which a will initially had been denied probate, to the benefit of certain of the deceased’s heirs at law, Mr. and Mrs. Calder. The state legislature then enacted a law which provided for a new hearing that was not permitted under the statute in effect when the original proceedings were held. The will was then admitted to probate, which benefitted the beneficiaries under that will, Mr. and Mrs. Bull.

Justice Chase defined ex post facto laws as,

“1st. Every law that makes an action done before the passing of the law and which was innocent when done, criminal and punishes such action. 2d. Every law that aggravates a crime, or makes it greater than it was when committed. 3rd. Every law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater punishment than the law annexed to the crime, when committed. 4th. Every law that alters the legal rules of evidence and receives less or different testimony than the law required at the time of the commission of the offense in order to convict the offender.”

He also gave examples of English precedents to illustrate the dangers of such laws. Bills of attainder were acts of Parliament that imposed the death penalty on an individual for a criminal act. If Parliament imposed a lesser penalty, the law was a bill of pains and penalties. Either one was odious. Often, but not always, they operated ex post facto:

“These acts were legislative judgments; and an exercise of judicial power. Sometimes they respected the crime, by declaring acts to be treason, which were not treason, when committed; at other times, they violated the rules of evidence (to supply a deficiency of legal proof) by admitting one witness, when the existing law required two; by receiving evidence without oath; or the oath of the wife against the husband; or other testimony, which the courts of justice would not admit; at other times they inflicted punishments, where the party was not, by law, liable to any punishment; and in other cases, they inflicted greater punishment, than the law annexed to the offence.”

But Chase went further and declared that a legislature could not pass bills of attainder or other ex post facto laws, even if there were no express constitutional prohibition. He urged that such laws were against the social compact through which people enter into political society and against fundamental principles of free republican government. A legislature that undertook such an action might engage in an “act” but had not made a “law,” because a law must not conflict with the fundamental purposes for which governments are formed by the people, to protect their persons and property.

He provided examples of the types of laws that are so destructive of personal liberty and private property and so manifestly unjust, that they are obvious and flagrant abuses of power:

“A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it. The genius, the nature, and the spirit, of our State Governments, amount to a prohibition of such acts of legislation; and the general principles of law and reason forbid them.”

If bills of attainder and ex post facto laws were so obviously contrary to justice, reason, and the essential purposes of governments, why then is there a need for specific prohibitions in the Constitution? Some delegates in the Philadelphia convention and in the state ratifying conventions raised that very question. A couple of reasons present themselves.

Consider another opinion in Calder, that of Justice James Iredell. He agreed about the definition of ex post facto laws and their unconstitutionality under the express provisions of the Constitution. But he also warned that, in their absence, a court was incompetent to declare such laws void.

“If, then, a government, composed of legislative, executive and judicial departments, were established by a constitution which imposed no limits on the legislative power, the consequence would inevitably be that whatever the legislative power chose to enact would be lawfully enacted, and the judicial power could never interpose to pronounce it void. It is true that some speculative jurists have held that a legislative act against natural justice must in itself be void, but I cannot think that under such a government any court of justice would possess a power to declare it so.”

The reason was that natural justice was not a sufficiently precise concept to allow judges to override the legislature’s power to make all laws which are not expressly prohibited to it: “The ideas of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard; the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject, and all that the court could properly say in such an event would be that the legislature (possessed of an equal right of opinion) had passed an act which, in the opinion of the judges, was inconsistent with the abstract principles of natural justice.”

Another reason was that, in fact, there had been such laws passed. During the debate in the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788, Patrick Henry defended the use of bills of attainder and ex post facto laws in some circumstances. His example was the case of one Josiah Philips, a loyalist guerrilla leader during the Revolutionary War. Philips’s band had repelled a militia sent by then-governor Patrick Henry. Henry then had sought an attainder of Philips. None other than Thomas Jefferson had drafted the bill of attainder which the legislature had adopted unanimously on May 28, 1788. The bill accused Philips and his associates of various crimes amounting to treason and directed that they be executed expeditiously after their capture. Moreover, if those attainted had not turned themselves in to the authorities, the act directed that “it shall be lawful for any person with or without orders, to pursue and slay the said Josiah Philips and any others who have been of his associates or confederates… or otherwise to take and deliver them to justice to be dealt with according to law provided that the person so slain be in arms at the time or endeavoring to escape.”

Edmund Randolph, the state attorney general at the time, had opposed the attainder. Instead, when Philips was caught, he was tried and convicted by a jury for grand theft of 28 hats and five pounds of twine. That made little difference in the end, as the punishment for that conviction also was death by hanging. Both Henry and Jefferson years later still defended the attainder of someone they considered the equivalent of a pirate engaged in crimes against humanity and therefore hostis humani generis, beyond the protection of the law.

Nor was Virginia alone. Many other states engaged in the practice against Loyalist Tory sympathizers. It must be noted, however, that actual executions under such attainders were rare, estimated by one authority to number 15 during the entire war. The Pennsylvania legislature, acting on its own initiative or at the instigation of its judiciary, enacted attainders for treason in hundreds of cases, although only four ended in hangings, all of Quakers. Due to its pacifism, that religious minority was broadly suspected to be at least unfriendly to the Patriot side. A particularly colorful tale is that of the members of the extended Doane family of Loyalist Quakers who helped the British while marauding in the countryside.

Several states used such attainders, even though their own constitutions prohibited them. It was to these events that James Madison was reacting in The Federalist No. 44 in language similar to Justice Chase’s,

“Bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, and laws impairing the obligations of contracts, are contrary to the first principles of the social compact, and to every principle of sound legislation. The two former are expressly prohibited by the declarations prefixed to some of the state constitutions, and all of them are prohibited by the spirit and scope of these fundamental charters. Our own experience has taught us, nevertheless, that additional fences against these dangers ought not to be omitted.”

Although all justices in Calder v. Bull agreed that ex post facto laws were those that retroactively altered rules about conduct to the detriment of the now-accused, there apparently was less unanimity about that definition during the debate over the Constitution. Some constitutional historians, most notably Professor William Crosskey writing in the mid-20th century, have argued that the phrase ex post facto was commonly understood in the 18th century to apply to any retroactive law. They have reviewed the records of the debates at the Philadelphia convention, primarily the printed Journal of the Convention, James Madison’s notes and notes taken by another delegate, David Brearley, a future New Jersey chief justice, and by convention president George Washington. Crosskey also analyzed numerous other contemporary English and American sources of 18th-century usage of the term.

The more restricted definition arose when, according to Madison’s notes, some delegates registered confusion about the phrase. John Dickinson, a much-respected authority on constitutional law at the time, then claimed to have researched the matter by consulting Blackstone’s influential Commentaries on the Laws of England. He concluded that Blackstone defined the phrase as applying only to retrospective criminal laws. The problem is that this definition appears to conflict with the Journal and with another part of Madison’s notes recording a debate about the clause a day earlier, on August 28, 1787, where the speakers assumed that the phrase applied more broadly to all retrospective laws. As well, the notes of Brearley and Washington reflect that earlier, broader understanding and say nothing about Dickinson’s remarks. Dickinson’s own papers about the Constitution do not show that he made those remarks.

Ten months later, during the intense debates in the Virginia ratifying convention, Patrick Henry also charged that the ex post facto clause applied to all retrospective laws, criminal and civil. Henry objected that, if no such laws were permitted, would the old worthless continental paper dollar notes have to be repaid at face value with gold and silver because no law could discharge such payment retroactively. Faced with such assertions, it is surprising that neither Madison nor his fellow delegate to the Philadelphia convention Edmund Randolph cited Dickinson or Blackstone. As a result, these historians speculate that Madison’s position in the Virginia convention and in essay No. 44 of The Federalist, which was adopted in Calder was not correct and that, indeed, Madison made up the Dickinson remarks and added them to his notes some years after the events.

Whatever the understanding about the scope of ex post facto was in 1787, the more limited meaning put forth by Madison in his essay and in the Virginia convention, and adopted by the justices in Calder is the accepted meaning today. Retroactive criminal laws create profound instability in that no one can predict whether one’s conduct is outside the law, because the law might be changed retroactively at any time. Their potentially destructive effect on people’s lives justifies Justice Chase’s description of ex post facto laws as contrary to basic conceptions of justice and a fundamental violation of the proper relationship between the government and the governed.

Joerg W. Knipprath is an expert on constitutional law, and member of the Southwestern Law School faculty. Professor Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums, and serves as a Constituting America Fellow.

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