Friday, December 22, 2006

Lemmon v. People VI

Judge Hiram Denio’s opinion in favor of affirmance -- that is, in favor of declaring the eight slaves free -- lacks the passionate denunciations of slavery we have seen in Justice Wright’s. It is a model of dispassionate and impartial scholarship. Nonetheless – and I may be imagining it – I picture Judge Denio silently smiling from time to time as he writes his opinion.

Justice Denio began his constitutional discussion by arguing that the Fugitive Slave Clause supported the constitutionality of the statute and thus the eight slaves' freedom. The Clause, the judge deduced, supported the conclusion that “the authors of the Constitution [assumed] that the fact of a federative Union would not of itself create a duty on the part of the States which should abolish slavery to respect the rights of the owners of slaves escaping thence from the States where it continued to exist.” 20 N.Y. at 604. In other words, the Framers implicitly recognized that a State could declare all slaves who came within its jurisdiction free, unless the Constitution provided otherwise. Despite this assumption, the Framers constrained free States only as to escaped slaves, not as to slaves whose masters brought them voluntarily into the jurisdiction:

“Reading the provision for the rendition of fugitive slaves, in the light which these considerations afford, it is impossible not to perceive that the [Constitutional] Convention assumed the general principle to be that the escape of a slave from a State in which he was lawfully held to service into one which had abolished slavery would ipso facto transform him into a free man. This was recognized as the legal consequence of a slave going into a State where slavery did not exist, even though it were without the consent and against the will of the owner. A fortiori he would be free if the master voluntarily brought him into a free State for any purpose of his own. But the provision in the Constitution extended no further than the case of fugitives.”

20 N.Y. at 606.

Sitting alone in his chambers, Judge Denio puts down his pen and reviews his handiwork. He leans back in his chair and smiles, savoring the irony. Round one to freedom.

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