Worcester v. Georgia

Following is the case brief for Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515 (1832)

Case Summary of Worcester v. Georgia:

  • Worcester, and a group of missionaries, did missionary work on Cherokee land in violation of Georgia law.
  • The Georgia law required that “white persons” only enter Cherokee land with a license and after having sworn a loyalty oath to Georgia.
  • Worcester and the missionaries were convicted of violating the law.
  • The Supreme Court, on a writ of error, reversed the convictions.  Because the U.S. government has the exclusive authority to regulate intercourse with the Cherokee nation, Georgia’s law was unconstitutional and, therefore, void.

Worcester v. Georgia Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

A group of white missionaries, which included Samuel Worcester, were doing missionary work in Cherokee territory in the State of Georgia.  The group was not only doing religious missionary work but was also giving the Cherokee advice on how to resist Georgia state laws.  The Cherokee were a self-governing people who had autonomy and rights to land through agreements with the United States government.

In response to Worcester and his fellow missionaries, Georgia passed a law in 1831 that prohibited “white persons” from living on Cherokee lands unless they obtained a license to do so from the governor of Georgia, and swore a loyalty oath to the State of Georgia.  Worcester and others never obtained the license or gave an oath.  Georgia then arrested Worcester and the other missionaries.

Procedural History:

  • Worcester and his group of missionaries were tried, convicted, and sentenced to four years hard labor for violating Georgia’s license and oath law.
  • Worcester appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, claiming that Georgia’s law violated the U.S. Constitution.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case on a writ of error.

Issue and Holding:

Can the State of Georgia regulate by state law the interaction between citizens of the state and members of the Cherokee nation?  No.

Judgment:

All laws of the State of Georgia regarding the Cherokee nation were unconstitutional and, therefore, void.  The Court ordered Worcester freed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

Indian territories, such as the Cherokee nation, are separate from the states, and the intercourse between the Indian territories and the states shall be conducted exclusively by the United States government.

Reasoning:

The Cherokee nation is a community distinct from the State of Georgia.  It occupies a territory where the laws of Georgia have no force or effect.  The interaction between the United States and the Cherokee nation is accomplished by the U.S. Constitution and any federal laws.

Accordingly, the laws of Georgia regarding the Cherokee nation interfered with the federal government’s authority, and with the relations between the Cherokee and the United States.  Those Georgia laws, then, are unconstitutional.  The law under which Worcester was prosecuted is void, and therefore the judgment against him is a nullity.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (McLean):

History has shown that intercourse between the Indian tribes has, since the Constitution was ratified, been between the federal government and those tribes.  Accordingly, Georgia’s laws are in conflict and must yield to the Constitution of the United States.

Dissenting Opinion (Baldwin):

As a jurisdictional matter, the case should not have come to the U.S. Supreme Court on a writ of error.  Rather, it should have been returned by the State court.  (On the merits, Justice Baldwin stated that his opinion is the same as the one expressed in Cherokee Nation v. The State of Georgia).

Significance:

Worcester v. Georgia is a landmark decision because it supported subsequent laws pertaining to the autonomy of Native American lands in the United States.  The political autonomy Native American tribes have today is based, in part, on the precedent of Worcester v. Georgia.  Unfortunately, the case did not stop the Cherokee from being forced from their land in 1838.  It occurred during the event known as the “Trail of Tears,” in which 15,000 Cherokee were marched westward on a terrible journey, resulting in the deaths of about 4,000 Cherokee.

Student Resources:

Full Text – Supreme Court Opinion

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