Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Scott v. Emerson IX: "Principles Do Not Change"

In his dissent, Justice Hamilton Rowan Gamble then turned to the principle that lawyers now call stare decisis -- that is, the doctrine that courts should ordinarily adhere to earlier decisions. Justice Gamble "regard[ed] the question as conclusively settled, by repeated adjudications of this court." Even if he doubted the propriety of those decisions, which he did not, "I would not feel myself any more at liberty to overturn them than I would any other series of decision, by which the law upon any other question was settled."

Justice Gamble saw stare decisis as a bulwark against "the temporary public excitements which are gathered around" the subject of slavery. He then described a process by which slaveholders, unfairly criticized, had understandably become angry at their attackers:
[I]t is, undoubtedly, a matter to be deeply regretted, that men who have no concern with the institution of slavery, should have claimed the right to interfere with the domestic relations of their neighbors, and have insisted that their ideas of philanthropy and morality should be adopted by people who are certainly capable of deciding upon their own duties and obligations. That the present owners of slaves, when denounced, in terms that would be appropriate, if they had actually kidnapped the slaves from the coast of Africa, or had inherited the fortunes accumulated by such iniquitous traffic, should feel exasperated by such wanton and unfounded attacks, is but natural.

But it was precisely in this heated atmosphere that calm resort to stare decisis was necessary:
That alienation of feeling and, finally, settled hostility will be produced by this course of conduct, is greatly to be apprehended. But, in the midst of all such excitement, it is proper that the judicial mind, calm and self-balanced, should adhere to principles established when there was no feeling to disturb the view of the legal question upon which the rights of parties depend.

Justice Gamble then reviewed the many cases in which the Supreme Court of Missouri had "recognized, from the beginning of the government, as a correct position in law, that a master who takes his slave to reside in a State or territory where slavery is prohibited, thereby emancipates the slave." His review included many of the cases discussed in previous entries here, including Winny v. Whitesides, Julia v. McKinney, Nat v. Ruddle and Rachael v. Walker. (For discussion of these cases, click on the tags to the right.)

Nor was the Supreme Court of Missouri alone in reaching this conclusion. The courts of other slave States, "including those in which it may be supposed there was the least disposition to favor emancipation," were in agreement. Justice Gamble then discussed decisions by the Supreme Court of Louisiana, the Supreme Court of Mississippi, the Court of Appeals of Virginia and the Court of Appeals of Kentucky. All of the decisions, Justice Gamble asserted, stood for the proposition
that where a right to freedom has been acquired, under the law of another State or community, it may be enforced by action, in the courts of a slaveholding State; for, in every one of these cases, the party claiming fredom had not procured any adjudication upon his right in the country where it accrued.

These decisions of other States, and the earlier decisions of the Supreme Court of Missouri, were entitled to particular deference precisely because they were issued before the topic of slavery had become superheated:
The cases here referred to, are cases decided when the public mind was tranquil, and when the tribunals maintained in their decisions the principles which had always received the approbation of an enlightened public opinion. Times may have changed, public feeling may have changed, but principles have not and do not change; and, in my judgment, there can be no safe basis for judicial decisions, but in those principles, which are immutable.

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