Home History The Supreme Court Case That Decided Indian Sovereignty

The Supreme Court Case That Decided Indian Sovereignty

by Enochadmin

Throughout its first a long time, america Supreme Court docket struggled mightily to outline the authorized standing of Indian tribes and their land claims.

“Their story is that of courts caught in a collision between regulation and morality on the one hand, want and power on the opposite,” retired Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a treatise on these circumstances. “That story forces us to look at the relation between regulation and politics.”

The litigation reached its apex in 1832 in Worcester v. Georgia; the justices made clear that coping with the Indians was the only province of the federal authorities. The ruling in Worcester not solely marked a serious authorized victory for the Indians — though one giving tribes no speedy assist — but in addition was a call that introduced the status of the Supreme Court docket to its nadir. Miraculously, the court docket rapidly bounced again.

Dangerous Historical past

Within the earlier sequence of associated circumstances the Justices urged — incorrectly — that the Indians didn’t domesticate or choose their lands, rendering their title to the property extra a permission to hunt than the notion of real-estate possession as traditionally understood below Anglo-Saxon regulation.

These circumstances all concerned competing claims by Americans who had bought Indian land, not the tribes themselves. Lastly in 1831 the Cherokee Nation acquired the excessive court docket to contemplate a case to which that tribe was a celebration — a problem to a land seize by the state of Georgia.

After gold was found on Cherokee land in 1828, Georgia intensified an present marketing campaign to get the Indians to maneuver west. Legislators handed a sequence of legal guidelines confiscating Indian land, nullifying Cherokee regulation inside these parcels, and forbidding conferences of the Cherokee legislative council.


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Redefining the Indian Nations

The Supreme Court docket took the tribe’s case contesting the Georgia legal guidelines as having no constitutional foundation. The excessive court docket’s opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Marshall, acknowledged that the Cherokee had a powerful case, however gave the Indians no solace. The holding: The Supreme Court docket had no jurisdiction to settle the dispute. The Cherokee had invoked the Court docket’s authority over fits involving overseas nations, however Marshall insisted Indians constituted not a overseas nation however a “home dependent nation,” akin to wards, with the federal authorities as their guardian.

William Wirt
(Library of Congress)

The Cherokees’ lawyer was William Wirt, a former U.S. legal professional common. Wirt wasn’t prepared to surrender and looked for a case the justices must give full consideration. He discovered one among the many Georgia legal guidelines meant to so squeeze the Cherokees that they would depart the state; the laws denied non-Indians the best to reside on reservations until they swore to assist all of the state’s legal guidelines. Eleven missionaries who have been working among the many Cherokee refused to take the oath, and have been prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to jail at arduous labor. 9 accepted a suggestion from the governor of a pardon in return for taking the oath. The opposite two — Samuel Worcester and Elizer Butler — have been inspired to face agency as a solution to arrange a authorized problem to the Georgia legal guidelines. The missionary group for which the pair labored assured them that “probably the most clever members of Congress are of the opinion that the Supreme Court docket will maintain the Indians and that the individuals of the U.S. will yield and a settlement might be made ….That is of immense significance to this nation and to the civilized world.”

By going to jail, Worcester and Butler set the stage for Wirt to mount a case the justices couldn’t sidestep.

Asserting Authority

Georgia insisted that the Supreme Court docket’s involvement amounted to “an unconstitutional and arbitrary interference” in state authority and refused to look to defend the legal guidelines, however in February 1832 the justices heard three days of arguments. The case riveted Washington; so many members of Congress got here to the courtroom to listen to the oral arguments that the Home needed to postpone its session. Wirt famous that the Cherokee held their lands below treaties with the federal authorities — in impact a contract — and that prior circumstances had established {that a} state can not ignore or amend a sound contract.

Six of the seven Justices accepted Wirt’s argument. Simply 10 days after the arguments, Chief Justice John Marshall spent 75 minutes studying the opinion aloud in open court docket.

Marshall made three primary factors: The statute below which Georgia imprisoned Worcester and Butler was invalid and “repugnant to the structure, legal guidelines, and treaties of america”; the defendants have been due to this fact cleared of all prison prices and decrease court docket selections upholding these convictions have been overturned; and the Cherokee Nation occupied its personal territory “wherein the legal guidelines of Georgia haven’t any power.”

The justices nicely understood that they’d taken a authorized and ethical stance however had no energy to implement what could be in some quarters a really unpopular resolution.

“Thanks be to God, the Court docket can wash their fingers clear of the inequity of oppressing the Indians and disregarding their rights,” Justice Joseph Story wrote his spouse shortly after the choice was introduced. “The Court docket has carried out its responsibility. Let the Nation now do theirs.”

this text first appeared in American historical past journal

Fb @AmericanHistoryMag | Twitter @AmericanHistMag

Andrew Jackson Demurs

The nation, personified by the administration of President Andrew Jackson, had no such intention. Jackson, a dedicated advocate of transferring the Cherokee westward, was disinclined to face down Georgia, which threatened to stop the Union reasonably than accede to the court docket’s ruling. Jackson flatly refused to obey a Supreme Court docket order to impact the discharge of Worcester and Butler, shaming the judiciary as a toothless, politically flaccid department of presidency. The court docket’s picture plunged.

And the Cherokee, regardless of successful their authorized battle, misplaced the political battle. In a phony conclave in late 1835, just a few hundred Cherokee (none in any manner formally chosen to characterize the tribe’s Georgia inhabitants of 17,000) signed a treaty agreeing to maneuver west. The Senate endorsed that instrument, and Jackson licensed the Military to implement the deal. Some 3,500 Indians died on the 5,000-mile trek to what’s now Oklahoma alongside what turned often called the “Path of Tears.”


The end result turned out to be higher for the Supreme Court docket. Its picture — and energy — decisively rebounded the 12 months after the justices issued their Worcester resolution. That turnaround had a completely sudden supply. Congress had, beginning in 1816, been incrementally elevating tariff charges, and eventually in 1832 South Carolina handed an Ordinance of Nullification, saying that that state thought-about the tariffs inoperative inside its borders and if the federal authorities tried to gather these charges the state would secede. Jackson couldn’t let a person state dictate nationwide coverage, and rapidly requested — and acquired — laws giving him the clear energy to cease South Carolina from interfering with federal customs officers.

To influence Congress to behave, Jackson promised to implement any Supreme Court docket resolution discovering a state motion unconstitutional. That meant he couldn’t proceed to disregard the Worcester resolution, and so he pressured Georgia to pardon the prisoners and persuaded Worcester and Butler to simply accept, thereby writing an finish to the case. The following congressional motion not solely strengthened the Jackson administration’s hand but in addition expanded courts’ jurisdiction to listen to circumstances involving tax gathering and smoothed the way in which for interesting state court docket selections to federal courts. South Carolina’s risk had made the American public see the necessity for a powerful nationwide authorities comprising three highly effective branches. As Charles Warren wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1922 ebook, “The Supreme Court docket in United States Historical past,” “The Court docket, which had carried out a lot to determine such supremacy, now discovered itself in a stronger place than it had been for the previous fifteen years.”

This text appeared within the Autumn 2022 challenge of American Historical past journal.


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