Friday, December 22, 2006

Lemmon v. People V

Broadly speaking, there were two legal issues for the Court to decide in Lemmon. The first was whether the law of New York provided that slaves physically brought into the state were free, even if they were brought there temporarily or in transit. Second, if and only if the answer to the first question was in the affirmative, then it became necessary to second: whether the law of New York was void or unenforceable or void because it violated the federal Constitution.

As it turned out, the Court concluded that the answer to the first question was clear. All three opinions that analyzed the arguments in detail – Judge Clerke’s dissent as well as the majority opinions of Judges Denio and Wright – concluded that the New York legislature had outlawed the importation of slaves into the state, even if the presence was temporary or transitory. Briefly, earlier New York statutes banning slavery in the state had contained exceptions, including an exception covering temporary or transitory presence. In 1841, the state legislature had repealed that exception. All of the Judges concluded that the legislature clearly intended to outlaw even temporary or transitory slavery within the State. No judge expressed doubt that State statutory law required that the petition be granted and the slaves be freed.

What divided the majority from the dissent was, rather, the second question. The majority concluded that the New York law did not violate the Constitution. The dissent concluded that the statute was unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. It is to the constitutional arguments I shall turn next, starting with the analysis of Judge Hiram Denio.

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