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Documents in Early American History

Jay Court, On Advisory Opinions

Letter from the Supreme Court to President George Washington (1793)

[The Washington administration asked the Supreme Court to advise the president on the proper interpretation of treaties regarding U. S. relations with Britain and France during the War of the French Revolution (wherein the British and French were at war and the U. S. was trying to maintain neutrality). The Supreme Court declined the request. This has been used as the main precedent by the Court for not giving its opinion as advice. It will give its opinion only in a case brought before the Court in a judicial manner. John Jay was the chief justice. The other justices were James Wilson, John Blair, James Iredell, and William Paterson]

We have considered the... Question stated in a Letter written to us [from the Washington administration, by Thomas Jefferson,] Secretary of State...

The lines of Separation drawn by the Constitution between the three Departments of Government, their being in certain Respects checks on each other, and our being judges of a court in the last Resort, are Considerations which afford strong arguments against the Propriety of our extrajudicially deciding the questions alluded to; especially as the Power given by the Constitution to the President of calling on the Heads of Departments for opinions, seems to have been purposely as well as expressly limited to executive Departments.

We exceedingly regret every Event that may cause Embarrassment to your administration; but we derive Consolation from the Reflection, that your judgment will discern what is Right, and that your usual Prudence, Decision and Firmness will surmount every obstacle to the Preservation of the Rights, Peace, and Dignity of the united States.

Documents in Early American History
Documents selected and edited, and web site created and maintained, by F. Thornton Miller