Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lemmon v. People VIII

I have previously noted that the opinion of Judge William B. Wright for affirmance contains several passionate denunciations of slavery. Apart from that rhetoric, the substance of the opinion is quite similar to that of Judge Denio, and I therefore will not discuss it at length.

One aspect of the opinion worth noting, however, is Judge Wright's emphasis on the limited powers of the federal government. Judge Wright almost certainly was savoring the irony as he used the doctrine of states' rights to strike a blow at the slave states in a passage such as this:

"Is there anything in the Federal Constitution to hinder the State from pursuing her own policy in regulating the social and civil condition of every description of persons that are or may come within her jurisdictional limits, or that enjoins on her the duty of maintaining the status of slavery in the case of slaves from another State of the Union voluntarily brought into her territory? It ought not to be necessary at this day to affirm the doctrine, that the Federal Constitution has no concern, nor was it designed to have, with the social basis and relations and civil conditions which obtain within the several States. The Federal Constitution is but the compact of the people of separate and independent sovereignties, yielding none of the rights pertaining to those sovereignties within their respective territorial limits, except in a few special cases."

20 N.Y. at 620-21.

Or this:

"It has never yet been doubted that the sovereign powers vested in the State governments remain intact and unimpaired, except so far as they are granted to the government of the United States; and that the latter government can claim no powers which are not granted to it by the Constitution, either expressly or by necessary implication. There is no grant of power to the Federal Government, and no provision of the Constitution from which any can be implied, over the subject of slavery in the States, except in the single case of a fugitive from service."

20 N.Y. at 628.

Finally, in the supreme irony, he invokes Dred Scott:

"Indeed, the exclusive right of the State of Missouri to determine and regulate the status of persons within her territory, was the only point in judgment in the Dred Scott case, and all beyond this was obiter [dictum, that is, extraneous discussion that was unnecessary to the decision and therefore not binding on other courts]. [Citations omitted.] Any other doctrine might prove more disasterous to the status of slavery than to that of liberty in the States, for, from the moment that it is conceded that, by the exercise of any powers granted in the Constitution to the Federal Government, it may rightly interfere in the regulation of the social and civil condition of any description of persons within the territorial limits of the respective States of the Union, it is not difficult to foresee the ultimate result."

20 N.Y. at 624-25.

This last passage seems to me to be a veiled threat to the Taney Court: if you hold that the Constitution requires a State to admit slaves, a Republican Court will in the future use your reasoning to compel southern States to abolish slavery.

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