Worcester v. Georgia

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Worcester v. Georgia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued February 20, 1832
Decided March 3, 1832
Full case nameSamuel A. Worcester v. Georgia
Citations31 U.S. 515 (more)
8 L. Ed. 483
Prior historyPlaintiff convicted in Gwinnett County, Georgia by the Georgia Superior Court (September 15, 1831)
Subsequent historyNone
Holding
Worcester's conviction is void, because states have no criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country.
Court membership
Case opinions
MajorityMarshall, joined by Johnson, Duvall, Story, Thompson
ConcurrenceMcLean
DissentBaldwin
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. I
 
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Worcester v. Georgia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued February 20, 1832
Decided March 3, 1832
Full case nameSamuel A. Worcester v. Georgia
Citations31 U.S. 515 (more)
8 L. Ed. 483
Prior historyPlaintiff convicted in Gwinnett County, Georgia by the Georgia Superior Court (September 15, 1831)
Subsequent historyNone
Holding
Worcester's conviction is void, because states have no criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country.
Court membership
Case opinions
MajorityMarshall, joined by Johnson, Duvall, Story, Thompson
ConcurrenceMcLean
DissentBaldwin
Laws applied
U.S. Const. art. I

Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of Samuel Worcester and held that the Georgia criminal statute that prohibited non-Native Americans from being present on Native American lands without a license from the state was unconstitutional.

The opinion is most famous for its dicta, which lay out the relationship between tribes and the state and federal governments, building the foundations of the doctrine of tribal sovereignty in the United States.

Background[edit]

Facts[edit]

Georgia passed 5 laws restricting authority of the Cherokees over their lands. Among these was a law requiring all whites living in Cherokee Indian Territory, including missionaries and persons married to Cherokee, to obtain a state license to live there. After seven missionaries refused to obtain licenses, they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to four years of hard labor. They refused to obey the military when they were asked to leave the state. They appealed their case to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the law under which they had been convicted was unconstitutional because states have no authority to pass laws concerning sovereign Indian Nations. The Supreme court sided with the Cherokee and ruled the laws unconstiutional.

The missionaries Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler were arrested by Georgia because of their opposition to Cherokee removal. Even if they had applied for state licenses, they still would have been denied. The Georgia state courts had previously deferred to Worcester because of his federal appointment as postmaster to New Echota, the Cherokee capital. However, George Rockingham Gilmer, the governor of Georgia, persuaded the federal government to withdraw Worcester's appointment as postmaster in order to make him subject to arrest.

Opinion[edit]

Chief Justice John Marshall laid out in this opinion the relationship between the Indian Nations and the United States is that of nations. He argued that the United States, in the character of the federal government, inherited the rights of Great Britain as they were held by that nation. Those rights, he stated, are the sole right of dealing with the Indian nations in North America, to the exclusion of any other European power, and not the rights of possession to their land or political dominion over their laws. He acknowledged that the exercise of conquest and purchase can give political dominion, but those are in the hands of the federal government and not the states.

The court ruled that the individual states, had no authority in American Indian affairs.

Legacy[edit]

Jackson's response[edit]

In a popular quotation that is probably apocryphal, President Andrew Jackson reportedly responded: "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!". This derives from Jackson's consideration on the case in a letter to John Coffee, "...the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate," (that is, the Court's opinion because it had no power to enforce its edict).[1]

The ruling in Worcester ordered that Worcester be freed; Georgia complied after several months. In 1833, the newly elected governor, Wilson Lumpkin, offered to pardon Worcester and Butler if they ceased their activities among the Cherokee. The two complied and were freed (under the authority of a January 14, 1833 general proclamation, not a formal pardon);[2] they never returned to Cherokee lands.

The federal government and the Cherokee were not party to the suit. Worcester imposed no obligations on Jackson; there was nothing for him to enforce.[3][4] The Court did not ask federal marshals to carry out the decision, as had become standard.[5] Worcester may be seen as a prudential decision, for avoiding the possibility of political conflict between the Court and the Executive, while still delivering what appeared to be a pro-Indian decision.[6]

As a tribal sovereignty precedent[edit]

Marshall's language in Worcester may have been motivated by his regret that his earlier opinions in Fletcher and Johnson had been used as a justification for Georgia's actions. Justice Story considered it similarly, writing in a letter to his wife dated March 4, 1832: "Thanks be to God, the Court can wash their hands clean of the iniquity of oppressing the Indians and disregarding their rights."[7] Because Jackson proceeded with Cherokee removal, Worcester did little more for indigenous rights than Johnson v. M'Intosh or Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.[8][9]

Worcester is cited in several later opinions on the subject of tribal sovereignty in the United States.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Boller, Paul F.; John H. George (1989). They Never Said It: A Book of False Quotes, Misquotes, & False Attributions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 53. ISBN 978-0-19-506469-8. 
  2. ^ Chused, 1999.
  3. ^ Banner, 2005, pp. 218—24.
  4. ^ Norgren, 2004, pp. 122—30.
  5. ^ Berutti, 1992, pp. 305—06.
  6. ^ Lytle, 1980, p. 69.
  7. ^ Warren, 1926, l.757.
  8. ^ Robertson, 2005, p. 117—44.
  9. ^ Banner, 2005, pp. 220–27.

References[edit]

External links[edit]