Saturday, March 17, 2007

Smith v. Smith I: "More than one decision is required . . ."

The Supreme Court of Louisiana decided Marie Louise v. Marot, the slave freedom case I discussed a few posts ago, in 1836. Three years later, the court confronted another, similar situation in Smith v. Smith, 13 La. 441, 1839 WL 1076 (1839).

Priscilla Smith was the slave for life of a Mrs. Smith (the opinion does not mention the latter’s first name). In the spring of 1835, Mrs. Smith “went to France, taking Priscilla with her as her servant.” Priscilla was supposed to “stay[] there with her mistress.” Perhaps Priscilla had left children or other family back in Louisiana, for she apparently made an “entreaty” to be returned there, and her mistress acceded to her wish. “After residing in Paris some months, Priscilla was sent back by her mistress to Louisiana, in the ship Garonne, and arrived in New Orleans in November, 1835.” Back in Louisiana, Priscilla was hired out, or hired herself out “in New-Orleans on wages, for account of her mistress.”

Priscilla filed “a suit for freedom” in the Parish Court for the Parish and City of New Orleans. She alleged “that, by going to France with the consent of her mistress, she became free, because slavery is not permitted there, and that the moment she landed in that country she became free.”

At trial, Priscilla established the facts described above. She also presented a lawyer familiar with French law as an expert. One “E. Caillard, Esq., being called on the part of the plaintiff, sa[id] he studied law in France; that there is no slavery permitted there. As soon as a slave lands on the French soil, he is free by the mere fact.”

The trial judge apparently heard the case without a jury. He ruled that Priscilla, “being domiciled in Louisiana, must be governed and controlled by the laws of this state, in her claim for freedom; that the mere fact of going to France, and returning to Louisiana, could not take the case out of the general rule.” He therefore rendered judgment in favor of Mrs. Smith and against Priscilla.

In reaching this decision, the Parish Judge apparently recognized that the Supreme Court of Louisiana had ruled to the contrary. As we shall see, he apparently defended his ruling by arguing, among other things, that “more than one decision of the supreme judicial tribunal is required to settle the jurisprudence on any given point or question of law.”

The judge's argument immediately reminds me of the arguments of Lincoln and the Republicans that the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott settled only the rights of the parties in that case, and that a single decision could not definitively settle the issue as to Congress’s power to bar slavery in the territories.

Priscilla appealed to the Supreme Court of Louisiana.

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