Thursday, February 08, 2007

Nat v. Ruddle II: The Instruction Was Reasonable

As I explained in my first post on this case, the trial judge had instructed the jury that, “if the defendant [Ruddle] took the plaintiff [Nat] into Illinois and used him there as a slave or permitted him to be used as such, then they should find for the plaintiff.” Justice George Tompkins, writing for a unanimous court, found this instruction sufficient. He began by explaining the general rule established by the court’s earlier cases:

“It has often been decided in this court, that to entitle a slave to recover in an action of this kind, the slave must abide in the State of Illinois, by and with the consent, express or implied, of his owner, long enough to induce the jury to believe that the owner intended to make that country the place of the slave’s residence.”

Justice Tompkins believed that the trial court’s instruction was “even broader and more favorable to the plaintiff than the rule established by this Court” because “according to this instruction, the jury were unlimited as to time or the intention of the defendant.” In other words, the instruction downplayed the residence requirement and potentially allowed the jury to rule in Nat’s favor even if he were brought to Illinois only on a temporary basis.

The Supreme Court seemed to think that the failure of the trial court to give the instruction requested by Nat’s counsel was harmless error:

“If the visits of the defendant [sic, should be “plaintiff”] had been so frequent and his stay so long as to induce a belief that his owner intended them as a pretext for keeping the plaintiff in Illinois in violation of the constitution, the jury were authorized by the instruction given by the Circuit Court, to consider both the visits, and the labor performed, as well as the hiring proved, to go to establish the fact that the slave was taken to Illinois by his master, and there used as a slave.”

In short, the instruction as a whole was reasonable, and Nat had a fair trial:

“The jury had before them the whole evidence, with a correct and liberal direction from the court, and the state of the evidence is not such as to induce this court to disturb the judgment of the Circuit Court.”

Nat lost. A court struggling to avoid this result might have seen unfairness in the trial court’s refusal to give the additional instruction, because the instruction given suggested that Nat had to show that his owner had taken him to Illinois. On the other hand, nothing in the decision suggests that the Supreme Court of Illinois was backing away from its commitment to apply Illinois law, and to do so in relatively generous fashion, if not literally. One suspects that the judges thought that there was a reasonable likelihood that Nat had gone to Illinois without permission, in which case heroic efforts to grant him a new trial were inappropriate.

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