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Foster v. Neilson - Significance

land treaty court government

By deferring to the will of Congress and the president, the Court established what has come to be known as the "political question" doctrine. Under this doctrine, still relied upon today, the Court will not decide matters which raise purely political, rather than legal matters, particularly in the field of foreign relations.

At the conclusion of the 1700s, Spain controlled the entire Florida peninsula, known as East Florida, and a strip of land extending from the Florida panhandle through southern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, ending at the Mississippi River. However, as Spain's power in both Europe and North America weakened, Spain found it increasingly difficult to control the inhabitants of the Floridas and to keep France (in Louisiana) and the United States from asserting claims to the Floridas. In 1800, Spain and France signed the Treaty of St. Ildefonso. According to Spain's interpretation of the treaty, Spain agreed to transfer only its land in Louisiana to France. The land owned by France in Louisiana was then transferred to the United States in 1803 by the Louisiana Purchase.

The United States, however, disagreed with Spain's interpretation of the Treaty of St. Ildefonso. In 1810, President James Monroe issued a proclamation declaring that all of Spanish West Florida was given to France, and thus to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. President Monroe ordered U.S. troops to occupy the lands. Congress supported President Monroe's interpretation of the Treaty of St. Ildefonso by passing a number of laws relating to the disputed territory, including several acts establishing the boundaries of Louisiana and the Mississippi Territory, and permitting Alabama to become a state. The conflicting claims were resolved by the 1818 Treaty of Amity between the United States and Spain. This treaty confirmed the U.S. control over the entire region of both East and West Florida. However, the treaty also provided that any grants of land made by the Spanish government in the region prior to the signing of the treaty were valid.

Against this historical backdrop, in March of 1826, James Foster and Pleasants Elam brought a suit in the U.S. district court to recover land in Louisiana, about 30 miles east of the Mississippi River. The plaintiffs claimed "title," or ownership, to the land through a grant made by the Spanish government in 1804. The defendant, David Neilson, who was in possession of the land, claimed that the grant by the Spanish government was invalid because the land was transferred to France in 1800 and then to the United States in 1803. Therefore, because Spain did not control the land in 1804, the Spanish government did not have any authority to grant title to the land. The plaintiffs countered that the Treaty of Amity, signed in 1818, confirmed Spain's interpretation of the earlier treaty because it specifically provided that all grants made prior to 1818 by the Spanish government would be considered valid. The district court concluded that the land belonged to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, and therefore the Spanish government had no authority to transfer the land to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court declined to adopt its own interpretation of the various treaties at issue, concluding that the issue was decided more properly by the president and Congress as the political branches of the government. The Court reasoned that because President Monroe had declared the land to be part of the land acquired by the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, and Congress had subsequently passed laws asserting control over these areas, the political branches of the government had taken the position that the land belonged to the United States. The Court then concluded:

After these acts of sovereign power over the territory in dispute, asserting the American construction of the treaty by which the government claims it, to maintain the opposite construction in its own courts would certainly be an anomaly in the history and practice of nations. If those departments which are entrusted with the foreign intercourse of the nation, which assert and maintain its interests against foreign powers, have unequivocally asserted . . . rights of dominion over a country of which it is in possession, and which it claims under a treaty; if the legislature has acted on the construction thus asserted, it is not in its own courts that this construction is to be denied. A question like this respecting the boundaries of nations, is, as has been truly said, more a political than a legal question; and in its discussion, the courts of every country must respect the pronounced will of the legislature.

The Court also held that the Treaty of Amity signed in 1818 did not make the previous Spanish grants valid. Although this portion of the Court's decision was overruled a few years later in the 1833 case of United States v. Percheman, the Court's decision in Foster continues to have significance. The decision helped establish what has come to be known as the "political question" doctrine. Under this doctrine, which was first suggested in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803), courts will not decide cases inherently political in nature, because such decisions are made more properly by the president and Congress as the political branches of the government. Since Foster was decided, the Supreme Court has declined to rule on political questions relating to foreign affairs, qualifications of members of Congress, and procedures used by the Senate for impeaching the president.

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