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Kentucky v. Dennison

On The Eve Of The Civil War

By the time the Supreme Court heard the case, most of the slave states had seceded from the Union. The whole idea of the federal government forcing the states to do anything had been put in question. Kentucky, however, was still deciding whether or not to secede. Thomas B. Monroe, Jr., the man who had first argued Kentucky's case, would become a Confederate officer and die in the Civil War. His father, a federal judge, would resign in order to support the Confederate cause. Between the time the case was argued and the time the decision was handed down, Abraham Lincoln traveled secretly through Baltimore to avoid possible mob violence on his way to being sworn in as president.

Moreover, the Supreme Court became quite unpopular in the North after the Dred Scott decision, another case involving a fugitive slave in which the Court had ruled in favor of Southern states' rights to enforce slavery. Chief Justice Taney was known to be highly sympathetic to the South.

Yet the decision in Kentucky v. Dennison surprised and angered both the North and the South. Taney, who wrote the majority decision, supported Kentucky's right to expect Governor Dennison to respect its laws. He agreed with the Southern governors who had argued throughout the 1830s and 1840s that they had the right to extradite slaves, those who helped free slaves, and anyone else who had been indicted for a crime within their states.

Previously, lawyers and politicians had argued over whether the seriousness of the crime should be a factor in another state's obligation to return an alleged criminal. Taney went further than anyone had ever gone: he said that a state had the obligation to return even someone indicted for a misdemeanor in another state. In the strongest possible terms, he held that the decision of whether a person should stand trial for a crime should be made by the state where the crime was committed, not by the state to which the person had escaped.

However, Taney struck one final blow for states' rights that offended both the North and the South. He said that in the final analysis, a governor was the executive authority of a state. Congress could authorize a governor to perform a particular duty, but, Taney wrote, "if he [sic] declines to do so, it does not follow that he may be coerced, or punished for his refusal." In other words, although Dennison was wrong not to return Lago to Kentucky, no federal power could force him to do it.

With slavery long abolished, Taney's decision stood for many years as an important ruling in the matter of states returning fugitives from justice. While most of the time such returns were routine, every so often, a governor decided not to comply with another state's demand. In 1987 the Court reversed its position in Puerto Rico v. Branstad which dictated governors to enforce requests for the return of a criminal.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Kentucky v. Dennison - Significance, Who Decides?, A Slave Girl And The Man Who Helped Her, On The Eve Of The Civil War