Ableman v. Booth 21 Howard 506 (1859)

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ABLEMAN v. BOOTH 21 Howard 506 (1859)

Ableman v. Booth, Chief Justice roger b. taney's last major opinion, was part of the dramatic confrontation between the Wisconsin Supreme Court, intent on judicial nullification of the fugitive slave acts, and the Supreme Court of the United States, seeking to protect the reach of that statute into the free states.

For his role in organizing a mob that freed Joshua Glover, an alleged fugitive, Sherman Booth was charged with violation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After trial and conviction, he was released by a writ of habeas corpus from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which held the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional, the first instance in which a state court did so. The Wisconsin court instructed its clerk to make no return to a writ of error from the United States Supreme Court and no entry on the records of the court concerning that writ, thus defying the United States Supreme Court.

The Court took jurisdiction despite the procedural irregularity. In a magisterial opinion for a unanimous Court, Taney condemned the obstruction of the Wisconsin court and reaffirmed federal judicial supremacy under section 25 of the judiciary act of 1789. Because the state's sovereignty "is limited and restricted by the Constitution of the United States," no state court process, including habeas corpus, could interfere with the enforcement of federal law. Taney also delivered two significant dicta. He anticipated the later doctrine of dual sovereignty, which was to hamper state and federal regulatory authority in the early twentieth century, when he wrote that though the powers of the state and federal governments are exercised within the same territorial limits, they "are yet separate and distinct sovereignties, acting separately and independently of each other, within their respective spheres." Taney concluded his opinion by declaring the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to be "in all of its provisions, fully authorized by the Constitution."

A reconstituted Wisconsin Supreme Court later conceded the validity of Taney's interpretation of section 25 and apologized to the United States Supreme Court, conceding that its earlier actions were "a breach of that comity, or good behavior, which should be maintained between the courts of the two governments."

William M. Wiecek