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Worcester v. The State of Georgia

Samuel A. Worcester, Plaintiff In Error, V. The State Of Georgia

The Cherokee nation, located in the state of Georgia, sought to remain on its territory and be viewed legally as an independent, sovereign nation. In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the tribe fought the state of Georgia's attempts to assert jurisdiction over Cherokee lands. The Cherokees appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that they were protected by treaties negotiated with the U.S. government. Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for the majority, ruled that the Court had no jurisdiction to hear the Cherokees' lawsuit. Marshall defined the Cherokees as a "domestic, dependent nation," rather than a sovereign nation. Therefore, under Article III of the Constitution, the Court had no basis for entertaining the lawsuit.

The following year, however, in Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Court modified its holding. In Worcester, Georgia sought to prevent white persons from living in Cherokee country without first obtaining a license from the state. The Cherokees challenged this license requirement. The Supreme Court agreed with the Cherokees, ruling that the Georgia laws were unconstitutional because they violated treaties, the Contract and Commerce Clauses of the Constitution, and the sovereign authority of the Cherokee nation.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Marshall placed emphasis on the tribe's standing as a nation. He pointed out that the U.S. government had applied the words treaty and nation "to Indians as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth." In addition, he ruled that Indian nations were distinct peoples with the right to retain independent political communities.

Worcester's affirmation of the validity of the treaty the Cherokees had signed with the United States did not protect them. President Andrew Jackson refused to enforce the Court's ruling and encouraged the removal of the Cherokees. Nearly a quarter of the 15,000 Cherokees died during the relocation, which began in 1838. The Cherokee called the western trek to Oklahoma and Indian Territory the "Trail of Tears." Nevertheless, Worcester remains an important decision, for it endorsed the sovereignty of Native American nations and the need to respect the terms and conditions negotiated by treaty.

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