United States v. Ravara (1793) – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In United States v. Ravara (1793) 2 U.S. 297, an indictment was found against Ravara, a consul from Genoa, for a misdemeanor in sending anonymous and threatening letters to the British minister and others with a view to extort money.

Objection was made to the jurisdiction for the reason that the exclusive cognizance of the case belonged to the Supreme Court on account of the official character of the defendant.

The case was tried in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Pennsylvania, before Justices Wilson and Iredell of the Supreme Court, and the district judge.

It was an indictment against a consul for a misdemeanor, of which, it was claimed, the Circuit Court had jurisdiction under the eleventh section of the Judiciary Act, giving Circuit Courts "exclusive cognizance of all crimes and offences cognizable under the authority of the United States," except where that act "otherwise provides, or the laws of the United States shall otherwise direct, and concurrent jurisdiction with the District Courts of the crimes and offences cognizable therein."

In behalf of the accused it was contended that the Court, in virtue of the constitutional grant to it of original jurisdiction in all cases affecting consuls, had exclusive jurisdiction of the prosecution against him.

Mr. Justice Wilson and the district judge concurred in overruling this objection. They were of opinion that although the Constitution invested this court with original jurisdiction in cases affecting consuls, it was competent for Congress to confer concurrent jurisdiction, in those cases, upon such inferior courts as might, by law, be established.

Mr. Justice Iredell dissented, upon the ground that the word original, in the clause of the Constitution under examination, meant exclusive.

The indictment was sustained, and the defendant upon the final trial, at which Chief Justice Jay presided, was found guilty.

He was subsequently pardoned on condition that he would surrender his commission and exequatur.The court was held by Wilson and Iredell, Justices of the Supreme Court, and Peters, the District Judge. Mr. Justice Wilson, who had been a member of the convention that framed the Constitution, was of opinion "that although the Constitution vests in the Supreme Court an original jurisdiction, in cases like the present, it does not preclude the legislature from exercising the power of vesting a concurrent jurisdiction in such inferior courts as might by law be established."

Mr. Justice Iredell thought "that, for obvious reasons of public policy, the Constitution intended to vest an exclusive jurisdiction in the Supreme Court upon all questions relating to the public agents of foreign nations. Besides, the context of the judiciary article of the Constitution seems fairly to justify the interpretation that the word original means exclusive jurisdiction."

The district judge agreed in opinion with Mr. Justice Wilson, and consequently, the jurisdiction was sustained. (United States v. Ravara, 2 Dall. 297.)