Saturday, February 03, 2007

Merry v. Tiffin I: Missouri Expands Winny

The Supreme Court of Missouri decided Winny v. Whitesides, discussed in earlier posts, in 1824. Three years later, in Merry v. Tiffin, 1 Mo. 725, 1827 WL 2008 (1827), the court reaffirmed and expanded the holding of Winny.

The facts of Merry were poignant. Before 1787, when the Northwest Ordinance was passed, the plaintiff's mother, unnamed in the opinion, "was holden as a slave" in that part of the Northwest Territory "now called Illinois." She remained a slave after the Ordinance was enacted and, in about 1791 gave birth to the plaintiff, "John." John "was holden there [in the Northwest Territory and Illinois] as a slave, till lately." Apparently, his master then moved with John to Missouri.

Using the same procedure that Winny had used, John brought an action for assault and battery in an attempt to be declared free. At trial in St. Louis Circuit Court, John's counsel "asked the court to instruct the jury, that by virtue of said [Northwest] ordinance, under these circumstances, John was entitled to his freedom."

Unlike the trial judge in Merry, the judge presiding at John's trial refused to so instruct the jury. Judgment was entered against John, and he appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Justice Matthias McGirk (spelled "M'Girk" in the Westlaw opinion) wrote the decision for the unanimous court. Justice McGirk, was born in 1783. A native of Tennessee, he came to Missouri in about 1810 and served as a territorial representative in 1813. When the Supreme Court of Missouri was established in 1820, he was named as one of its three justices. He served for twenty years (1821-41) and died the following year, 1842.

Justice McGirk, for a unanimous court, reversed the judgment against John and remanded the case for a new trial. In the next post, I will review the court's brief opinion (less than a page of Westlaw text), in which it rejected an attempt to distinguish Winny.

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