Contempt of Court: The Turn Of-The-Century Lynching That Launched 100 Years of Federalism

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Mark Curriden;Leroy Phillips

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The case by which the U.S. Supreme Court declared itself the highest court in the land.

When Ed Johnson, a black man, was wrongly convicted in 1906 of rape and sentenced to death in Tennessee, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan issued a stay of execution, declaring that Johnson's right to a fair trial had been violated and that he had been railroaded through the criminal justice system. The interference of the Supreme Court was not well received back in Chattanooga. A violent mob answered this federal interference by dragging Johnson from his jail cell, beating him, and hanging him from a bridge. Local police did nothing to prevent the lynching, nor were any members of the mob arrested. For the first and only time in history, an enraged Supreme Court conducted a criminal trial to enforce its authority. It brought criminal contempt of court charges against the sheriff, his deputies, and members of the lynch mob.

The first book written about these highly charged events, Contempt of Court raises issues of federalism versus states' rights that are as timely today as they were ninety years ago. Johnson's case led to a precedent-setting criminal trial that is unique in the annals of American jurisprudence. Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips's riveting tale will prove essential reading for all interested in understanding how American justice works.


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