Saturday, December 30, 2006

Ableman v. Booth IV: Smith on Jurisdiction

The proceedings in Wisconsin actually involved a number of cases and a number of decisions. The first of those decisions, In re Booth, 3 Wis. 1, 1854 WL 100 (1854), is by our friend, Associate Justice Abram D. Smith (pictured). It addresses a writ of habeas corpus that Sherman Booth filed after he was arrested but before he was indicted. To place the opinion in context, I must briefly describe what seems to have happened, in somewhat simplified form.

After Booth and others freed Glover on March 11, 1854, Booth was arrested on the basis of an order of Winfield Smith, "a commissioner duly appointed by the [federal] district court of the United States for said district [of Wisconsin]." In other words, Winfield Smith was not a state official or a federal judge, but rather an appointed federal "commissioner" under the
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. As such, Section 1 of the Act gave him the powers of "arresting, imprisoning or bailing" "offenders for any crime or offense" under the Act.

To make a long story short, Booth was bailed, rearrested, rebailed and rearrested. Ultimately, on May 26, 1854, he was jailed to await indictment and trial.

Booth immediately petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus. He argued that he should be freed for two reasons: first, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was unconstitutional; and second, that the warrant that served as the basis for his arrest contained technical defects (such as the fact that it described Glover as "property" rather than using the statutory phrase "person held to service or labor").

Because the full court was not then in session, Associate Justice Smith heard the case alone on May 29 and 30, and issued his decision on June 7.

Before reaching the merits, Associate Justice Smith had to decide whether he even had jurisdiction to do so. Booth was in federal custody, but Smith was a state judge. Smith concluded that his exercise of jurisdiction would not impinge on the rights of the federal government because the warrant was issued by a commissioner and not by a federal judge. The commissioner was not independent and did not have true judicial powers:

"The warrant, by virtue of which the petitioner was held, was not issued by a federal judge or court, but by a commissioner of the United States. No exclusive or ultimate jurisdiction can be claimed for an officer of this kind. As one of the justices of the highest judicial tribunal of this state . . . I could not deny to any citizen or person entitled to the protection of the state, the proper process by which the validity of a warrant issued by such authority, could be examined. Nor can I admit, that a court commissioner, holding his appointment at the will of the court, responsible only to such court -- in fact, irresponsible and unimpeachable -- has the right or power to issue any process by which a citizen of the state may be imprisoned, that may not be examined, and its its validity tested, by the proper judicial authority of the state. . ..

" . . . [T]he States will never submit to the assumption, that United States commissioners have the power to hear and determine upon the rights and liberties of their citizens, and issue process to enforce their adjudications, which is beyond the examination or review of the state judiciary. . ..

"Every jot and tittle of power delegated to the federal government will be acquiesced in, but every jot and tittle of power reserved to the staes will be rigidly asserted, and as rigidly sustained."

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