I first heard of the case United States v. Shipp in 1984, when I clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall. A prisoner was facing execution, local authorities were insisting that the execution proceed without delay, and the U.S. Supreme Court had turned down his final petition for review. Marshall felt aggrieved at the prospect of a state-run killing; he had come to believe that the death penalty is immoral and unconstitutional in all instances. But he felt especially angry in this instance because he believed that the Court was allowing itself to be rushed by the impatience of the locals who wanted to stick to their schedule. Marshall told the clerk working on this case to be sure to include a reference to a decision whose name he could not initially recall. He described the case. But among his four clerks, the description sparked no recognition. After a few minutes, he remembered that the name Shipp was in the title. With that information and the assistance of computers, we quickly found the case.
For the next 15 years I neither heard nor saw a discussion of Shipp, even though, as a legal academic, I am surrounded by an ocean of case law commentary. Then I read Contempt of Court, by Mark Curriden, the legal affairs writer for the Dallas Morning News, and Leroy Phillips, Jr., a trial attorney in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It is a book that belongs on the same shelf with Richard Kluger’s Simple Justice and Anthony Lewis’s Gideon’s Trumpet. In their hands, United States v. Shipp emerges as an unforgettable case of which every lawyer should be aware. It is the only instance in which the Supreme Court has ordered the jailing of individuals for contempt of court.
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