Ableman v. Booth; United States v. Booth

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21 How. (62 U.S.) 506 (1859), argued 19 Jan. 1859, decided 7 Mar. 1859 by vote of 9 to 0; Taney for the Court. In the spring of 1854, Benjamin S. Garland, a slaveowner from Missouri, went to Wisconsin seeking to recapture a runaway slave. Joshua Glover had escaped two years earlier and found work in a mill outside Racine. The slaveowner invoked the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and filed a complaint before the United States commissioner in Milwaukee, who promptly issued a warrant for Glover's arrest. A deputy marshal, with the assis-tance of the slaveowner, forcibly entered Glover's cabin, knocked him down, and carried him off bound and handcuffed to the Milwaukee jail.

A boisterous public meeting condemned the capture, resolved “the slave catching law of 1850 disgraceful and … repealed,” and dispatched one hundred men to Milwaukee to secure Glover's release. In the meantime, Sherman M. Booth, an abolitionist and editor of an antislavery newspaper, obtained a writ of habeas corpus for Glover from a local county court judge. The federal marshal and the county sheriff refused to produce the prisoner on the theory that he was properly in federal custody and could not be released through a state court habeas proceeding. However, a crowd broke into the jail and rescued Glover, who was never recaptured. Soon thereafter, Booth and others were indicated and convicted for violating federal law by aiding and abetting the rescue.

This was the dramatic start of a long jurisdictional confrontation between state and federal authority. Federal prosecution of Booth produced repeated defiance by Wisconsin judges of federal authority, even that of the United States Supreme Court. At one point, the judges of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, in an attempt to forestall federal review, ordered their clerk to make no return to the writ of error issued by the United States Supreme Court and to enter no order in the case. Judges and legislators battled over state habeas corpus jurisdiction versus federal judicial authority.

The conflict culminated with Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's unanimous opinion in the companion cases of Ableman v. Booth and United States v. Booth (1859), though his decision did not end the struggle. Taney condemned the Wisconsin Supreme Court's stance, arguing it “would subvert the very foundations of this Government” (p. 525). His opinion echoed the broad nationalism of famous decisions of John Marshall's era, such as McCulloch v. Maryland (1819). It is ironic that Ableman v. Booth's assertion of sweeping national power issued from the pen of a chief justice known for his strong states’ rights views. Moreover, Taney's opinion in dictum expressed the unanimous view that the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was “in all its provisions, fully authorized by the Constitution of the United States” (p. 526). When Booth was subsequently reindicted in a federal court in 1860, the Wisconsin Supreme Court still split evenly over whether Booth might be entitled to a writ of habeas corpus despite the mandate of the United States Supreme Court. The Wisconsin legislature condemned Taney's decision as “despotism” and called for “positive defiance” by the states. Only the Civil War settled the issue.


Subjects: Law.

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