When Ed Johnson, a black man, is wrongly convicted in 1906 of raping Nevada Taylor and sentenced to death in Tennessee, a courageous black attorney rushes to Washington to plead his case before Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan. Miraculously, Harlan issues 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. With the acquiescence of a sheriff coming up for re-election, a violent mob answered this Federal "interference" by dragging Johnson from his jail cell, beating him and hanging him from a bridge above the Tennessee River. Local police did nothing to prevent the lynching, nor were any members of the mob arrested.
When Tennessee authorities refused to act, an enraged Supreme Court, for the first and only time in its history, conducted a criminal trial to enforce its authority. It brought contempt of court and obstruction of justice 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 vs. state's rights that are as timely today as they were ninety years ago. The case is notable for other reasons: it was the first time a black attorney ever argued a case before the United States Supreme Court, and it led to a precedent-setting criminal trial that is unique in the annals of American jurisprudence. This is the case by which the U.S. Supreme Court declared itself the highest court in the land.