Appellant: Samuel A. Worcester
Appellee: State of Georgia
Appellant's Claim: That the state of Georgia had no legal authority to pass laws regulating activities within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation, a nation recognized through treaties with the United States.
Justices for the Court: Garbriel Duvall, William Johnson, Chief Justice John Marshall, John McLean, Joseph Story, Smith Thompson
Justices Dissenting: Henry Baldwin
Date of Decision: March 3, 1832
Decision: Ruled in favor of Worcester overturning his lower court conviction for living on Cherokee Nation lands without a state of Georgia permit.
Significance: This ruling was the third key decision by Chief Justice John Marshall since 1823 establishing the political standing of Indian tribes within the United States. The ruling recognized the sovereign (politically independent) status of tribes. States did not have jurisdiction to pass laws regulating activities on Indian lands located within their state boundaries. This reaffirmation of tribal sovereignty became the basis for many Court decisions over the next 160 years and eventually helped lead to dramatic Indian economic recovery by the late twentieth century. Despite winning in Court, the Cherokee were still forced from their homeland by the federal government and resettled in Oklahoma.
After the United States gained independence from Great Britain in the late eighteenth century, landownership issues became an even greater concern. Indian nations, still many and strong, held military supremacy over the new fledgling and economically broke United States. The young nation did inherit from Great Britain several international principles guiding Indian relations. First, tribes have sovereignty, meaning they are politically independent of other nations and free to govern their own internal affairs by their own laws and customs. Secondly, tribes held a pre-existing right to the land they occupied which they could give to others. Third, land could only be exchanged between national governments. Neither private citizens nor state governments could acquire land from tribes.
Following the basic international principles of Indian relations, the U.S. Constitution granted exclusive authority to deal with tribes to Congress, not the states. The authority was primarily included in Article 1 of the Constitution which gave Congress sole power to "regulate commerce with . . . the Indian Tribes." Article VI of the Constitution also recognized Indian treaties along with acts of Congress as the "supreme law of the land." Like federal laws, Indian treaties would carry greater weight than state laws. To exercise its authority to regulate activities on Indian...