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All the before mentioned courts of the United States shall have power to issue writs of scire facias, habeas corpus, and all other writs, not specially provided for by statute, which may be necessary for the exercise of their respective jurisdictions, and agreeable to the principles and usages of law. And either of the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as judges of the district courts, shall have power to grant writs of habeas corpus, for the purpose of an inquiry into the cause of commitment. Provided, that writs of habeas corpus shall in no case extend to prisoners in gaol, unless where they are in custody under or by colour of the authority of the United States, or are committed for trial before some court of the same, or are necessary to be brought into court to testify.
Petitioner prisoners filed motions with the U.S. Supreme Court for writs of habeas corpus seeking their release from prison, to which they had been committed by the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Columbia on charges of treason, for having allegedly participated in a conspiracy to foment a western revolution against the United States. The prisoners claimed that the Court had power to issue a writ of habeas corpus to review their commitment. The United States contended that no such power existed, and that the commitments were appropriate.
The Court stated that whatever motives might induce the legislature to withhold from the Court the power to award the great writ of habeas corpus, there could be none which would induce them to withhold it from every court in the United States, and that the sound construction would seem to be that the first sentence of the statutory grant vested the power in all the courts of the United States; but as those courts were not always in session, the second sentence vested it in every justice or judge of the United States. The Court stated that the jurisdiction which it was asked to exercise was clearly appellate, to revise a decision of an inferior court, and that if at any time public safety should require suspension of the powers vested by the act, it was for the legislature to say so. Anent the second issue, the Court was of the opinion that there was not sufficient evidence of the prisoners levying war against the United States to justify their commitment on the charge of treason. According to the Court, treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. War must be actually levied against the United States. However flagitious may be the crime of conspiring to subvert by force the government of our country, such conspiracy was not treason.