Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515; 8 L. Ed. 483 (1832)
Facts—Georgia adopted a law under which it sentenced a Vermont missionary to the Cherokees to four years in prison for residing within the Cherokee Territory without a license from the governor.
(a) Was the record of the case properly before the Supreme Court?
(b) Can the Court take cognizance of a case involving an appeal of a state prosecution?
(c) Are treaties with Native American tribes a matter for state or national authorities?
(a) Yes; (b) Yes; (c) National.
Reasons—C.J. Marshall (5–1). (a) A case is considered to be before the Court when signed by the clerk, and this case was so certified.
(b-c) The Judiciary Act does not give the Court discretion over the cases it will accept. These include matters involving federal treaties. When Europeans came to America, they found the continent inhabited “by a distinct people divided into separate nations, independent of each other and of the rest of the world, having institutions of their own, and governing themselves by their own laws.” The European nations, including Great Britain, who claimed each area, entered into treaties with the Indians and oversaw trade with them, keeping other European nations at bay in the process. This power later passed to the United Colonies and to the new nation under the U.S. Constitution. The United States has entered into a number of treaties with the Cherokees: “This relation was that of a nation claiming and receiving the protection of one more powerful: not that of individuals abandoning their national character, and submitting as subjects to the laws of a master.” Treaties have recognized the territory of the Cherokees, and state laws repugnant to such treaties, including the law in question, are void.
J. McLean, concurring, agreed that the Court had properly accepted this case. He argued that it was just as important for the federal courts to review criminal cases originating in the states as to review civil cases. He further emphasized the role of the national government in managing relations with Native Americans through its power over commerce. The Native Americans “have always been admitted to possess many of the attributes of sovereignty.”
As long as Native Americans retain their identity as tribes, the national government governs relations with them.
J. Baldwin, dissenting, did not think this case had been properly certified before the Court.
Note—Although the Marshall Court attempted to protect the rights of the Cherokees, the Court did not have the sympathy either of the state government, which refused to honor its decision, or of President Andrew Jackson. This decision was followed by the tragic Trail of Tears in which thousands of Cherokees were relocated to Oklahoma, many dying along the way.