Thursday, January 25, 2007

Ableman v. Booth XIX: Justice Crawford on Federal Supremacy

After explaining what his views of federal and state authority concerning enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Clause would be "[i]f this were a new question," Justice Crawford then conceded that he was constrained

"because the question has been authoritatively decided by the supreme court of the United States, the last and final constitutional exponent. Upon this, as upon all other questions arising out of the constitution of the United States, or the laws of congress, I am bound to yield obedience to the decisions of that tribunal, for upon such questions we are subordinate."

Justice Crawford was thus the only member of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin who explicitly admitted that the United States Supreme Court's decisions on federal constitutional matters were binding on state courts. Chief Justice Whiton did not expressly admit as much, but Justice Crawford correctly (in my view) took the position that the Chief Justice had tacitly conceded the issue:

"From these decisions [Prigg and others], I am led to view the subject as definitely settled, and the maxim stare decisis, as entirely applicable. I understand the chief justice to feel himself concluded by these decisions, so far as they declare the act of 1793 to have been the exercise of a constitutional power by congress to legislate, but that because they do not settle the question, whether the fugitive slave is entitled to a trial by jury, of the state where he is seized, and, because the act of 1850 confers certain powers on commissioners appointed by the federal courts, which are claimed to be judicial, the constitutionality whereof has not been determined by the supreme court of the United States, he is at liberty to inquire upon these points, whether the act of 1850 is obnoxious to the consitution."

As to the open issues identified by the Chief Justice, Associate Justice Crawford confessed that the arguments had "raised doubts in my mind," but in the end they "failed to produce that conviction which should justify a court, or judge, to pronounce a legal enactment void, because unconsitutional, and I am therefore unable to concur in the opinion that this law is unconsitutional."

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