Supreme Court Rulings
Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831)
The Cherokee Nation filed suit against Georgia, seeking a federal injunction against laws passed by the State. In December of 1828, the State of Georgia passed a set of laws that violated the rights of Cherokee people on their land. The Cherokee petitioners, including John Ross and former attorney general William Wirt, claimed that the Georgia laws “go directly to annihilate the Cherokees as a political society.” (3) Wirt argued before the Supreme Court that the Cherokee Nation was a “Separate Foreign Nation” under the U.S Constitution and therefore, was not to be subjected to the Georgia laws.
The Supreme Court heard the case but did not rule based on the merits. Instead, determined that the Cherokee did not possess standing. Chief Justice Marshall wrote the majority opinion claiming that Article III of the Constitution does not identify Native Americans to be a foreign power. He specifically writes, “Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian. They look to our government for protection; rely upon its kindness and its power; appeal to it for relief to their wants’ and address the President as their great father. They and their country are considered by foreign nations, as well as by ourselves, as being so completely under the sovereignty and dominion of the United States that any attempt to acquire their lands or to form a political connection with them would be considered by all as an invasion of our territory and an act of hostility” (3). The Cherokee Nation’s injunction is denied. However, the Supreme Court would change its opinion the following year.
Worcester v. Georgia
In 1830, the state of Georgia passed a law that prohibited white men from living on Native American land without a license. Samuel Worcester, a white missionary, violated the law and was arrested by the state. He was then sentenced to four years of labor inside a penitentiary. William Wirt again argued the case in front of the Supreme Court. Worcester claimed that Georgia did not have the authority to extend its laws and regulations into Cherokee land; that the Constitution gave Congress that power.
The Court held that the state of Georgia did not have the right to regulate the “intercourse of citizens of its state and the Cherokee Nation” (4). Chief Justice Marshall wrote the majority opinion of the Court. In stark contrast from his opinion in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, Marshall identifies the Cherokee as a sovereign nation. He writes, “the Indian nations had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights as the undisputed possessors of the soil.” (4) And that despite being under the protection of the United states, “protection does not imply the destruction of the protected.” (4) Chief Justice Marshall concludes his opinion by asserting that, “The Cherokee Nation, then, is a distinct community occupying its own territory…in which the laws of Georgia can have no force, and which the citizens of Georgia have no right to enter but with the assent of the Cherokees themselves, or in conformity with treaties and with the acts of Congress.” (4) This opinion, however, is essentially ignored by the state of Georgia and President Jackson. Georgia legislature continues to pass laws that targeted the Cherokee and other tribes. In 1838, in spite of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Cherokee are forced from their land and relocated west.