Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ableman v. Booth I

I haven't finished with Lemmon v. People yet, but I'm enjoying reading and writing about pre-War state court opinions that shed light on attitudes about slavery and the roles of the state and federal governments. I thought another interesting project would be to look into the state court decisions underlying the United States Supreme Court decision in Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. 506 (1859).

Very briefly (at this point), the Supreme Court case arose out of an incident in Wisconsin, in which Sherman M. Booth (pictured above), among others, freed a fugitive slave, Joshua Glover, who had been taken into custody by a Deputy United States Marshal pursuant to a warrant issued by a United States Federal District Judge. Booth was indicted and criminally convicted in federal court for aiding and abetting an escape in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A description of events is available

Notwithstanding that the federal court was exercising jurisdiction, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin heard Booth's petition for habeas corpus, determined that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was unconstitutional and Booth's incarceration therefore unlawful, and ordered him set free.

In the Supreme Court,
Chief Justice Taney wrote for a unanimous Court that the Supreme Court of Wisconsin lacked jurisdiction and reversed. In one of the many ironies of antebellum jurisprudence, Justice Taney endorsed in ringing language the principle of federal judicial supremacy:

"The Constitution was not formed merely to guard the States against danger from foreign nations, but mainly to secure union and harmony at home; for if this object could be attained, there would be but little danger from abroad; and to accomplish this purpose, it was felt by the statesmen who framed the Constitution, and by the people who adopted it, that it was necessary that many of the rights of sovereighty which the States then possessed should be ceded to the General Government; and that, in the sphere of action assigned to it, it should be supreme, and strong enough to execute its own laws by its own tribunals, without interruption from a State or from State authorities."

"The language of the Constitution, by which this power is granted, is too plain to admit of doubt or to need comment. It declares that 'this Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be passed in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every State shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.'

"But the supremacy thus conferred on this Government could not peacefully be maintained, unless it was clothed with judicial power, equally paramount in authority to carry it into execution; for if left to the courts of justice of the several States, conflicting decisions would unavoidably take place, and the local tribunals could hardly be expected to be always free from the local influences of which we have spoken. And the Constitution and laws and treaties of the United States, and the powers granted to the Federal Government, would soon receive different interpretations in different States, and the Government of the United States would soon become one thing in one State and another thing in another. It was essential, therefore, to its very existence as a Government, that it should have the power of establishing courts of justice, altogether independent of State power, to carry into effect its own laws; and that a tribunal should be established in which all cases which might arise under the Constitution and laws and treaties of the United States, whether in a State court or a court of the United States, should be finally and conclusively decided. Without such a tribunal, it is obvious that there would be no uniformity of judicial decision; and that the supremacy, (which is but another name for independence,) so carefully provided in the clause of the Constitution above referred to, could not possibly be maintained peacefully, unless it was associated with this paramount judicial authority."

"[A]fter . . . the State judge or court [is] judicially apprized that the party is in custody under the authority of the United States, they can proceed no further. They then know that the prisoner is within the dominion and jurisdiction of another Government, and that neither the writ of habeas corpus, nor any other process issued under State authority, can pass over the line of division between the two sovereignties. He is then within the dominion and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States."

62 U.S. at 517-18, 523.

Although this language seems startling coming out of the mouth of Chief Justice Taney, it seems clearly correct. How, then, did the Supreme Court of Wisconsin justify its position and claim jurisdiction? On what grounds did that court determine that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was unconsitutional? And was it correct? In future posts, I look at the decisions of the Wisconsin Supreme Court and discuss these and related issues.

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