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Ableman v. Booth and United States v. Booth

Federal Courts Are Supreme Over State Courts

Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Taney presented his decision in March 1859. Taney forcefully upheld the supremacy of the federal government and the federal courts. By using the device of habeas corpus, Taney declared, the Wisconsin Supreme Court had nullified the judgment and sentence of a U.S. district court. In so doing, it had asserted that state courts were supreme over federal courts. If state courts could nullify the Fugitive Slave Law, they also could nullify any other federal law. This inevitably, Taney reasoned, would lead to chaos through conflicting decisions in various states.

Trying to prevent local interests, passions, and prejudices from dominating, Taney continued, the founders had made the federal government supreme within the sphere of action assigned to it. This supremacy could be maintained only if federal judicial power were supreme over state courts. State governments should not be jealous of this federal supremacy, for it was given by the Constitution, created by the people of all the states.

Taney admitted that a state court could use the process of habeas corpus to inquire into any and all imprisonments. But, as soon as a state judge or court is told "that the party is in custody under the authority of the United States, they can proceed no further." This was the heart of the matter. A federal prisoner is "within the dominion and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States."

Even if a federal court ruled wrongly regarding federal laws, only a higher federal court could correct it. A state court had no authority to correct proceedings in a national court. However, for the record, Taney stated that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1859 was fully authorized by the U.S. Constitution.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court refused even to acknowledge Taney's decision. Booth finally was arrested in March 1860 and imprisoned in the customs house in Milwaukee. Because he would not pay his fine, he remained in jail until early in 1861. A state court commissioner issued a writ of habeas corpus, but the Marshall ignored it.

Although jurisdictional law sometimes may seem arcane, Justice Taney's Ableman decision was of profound significance in affirming national sovereignty and the supremacy of federal law. But no Supreme Court decision could compel the abolitionists to obey laws they considered unjust. Despite Taney's efforts, only a war could resolve the deep moral divisions of slavery.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Ableman v. Booth and United States v. Booth - Significance, Joshua Glover Is Saved From The Slave Catchers, Wisconsin Nullifies Federal Laws, Federal Courts Are Supreme Over State Courts