Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 515 (1832), was a case in which the United States Supreme Court vacated the conviction of Samuel Worcester and held that the Georgia criminal statute that prohibited non-Native Americans from being present on Native American lands without a license from the state was unconstitutional.
The opinion is most famous for its dicta, which laid out the relationship between tribes and the state and federal governments, stating that the federal government was the sole authority to deal with Indian nations. It is considered to have built the foundations of the doctrine of tribal sovereignty in the United States.
Chief Justice John Marshall laid out in this opinion that the relationship between the Indian Nations and the United States is that of nations. He reasoned that the United States, in the character of the federal government, inherited the rights of Great Britain as they were held by that nation. Those rights, he stated, include the sole right to deal with the Indian nations in North America, to the exclusion of any other European power. This did not include the rights of possession to their land or political dominion over their laws. He acknowledged that the exercise of conquest and purchase can give political dominion, but those are in the hands of the federal government, and individual states had no authority in American Indian affairs. Georgia's statute was therefore invalid.
Marshall's language in Worcester may have been motivated by his regret that his earlier opinions in Fletcher v. Peck and Johnson v. M'Intosh had been used as a justification for Georgia's actions. Joseph Story considered it similarly, writing in a letter to his wife dated March 4, 1832: "Thanks be to God, the Court can wash their hands clean of the iniquity of oppressing the Indians and disregarding their rights."
In a popular quotation that is believed to be apocryphal, President Andrew Jackson reportedly responded: "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!" This derives from Jackson's comments on the case in a letter to John Coffee, "...the decision of the Supreme Court has fell still born, and they find that they cannot coerce Georgia to yield to its mandate".
The Court did not ask federal marshals to carry out the decision, as had become standard. Worcester thus imposed no obligations on Jackson; there was nothing for him to enforce. This may be seen as a prudential decision, for avoiding the possibility of political conflict between the Court and the Executive, while still delivering what appeared to be a pro-Indian decision.
However, the ruling did order that Worcester be freed, and Georgia complied after several months. In 1833, the newly elected governor, Wilson Lumpkin, offered to pardon Worcester and Butler if they ceased their activities among the Cherokee. The two complied and were freed (under the authority of a January 14, 1833 general proclamation by Georgia Governor Wilson Lumpkin, not a formal pardon). They never returned to Cherokee land.
Worcester has been cited in several later opinions on the subject of tribal sovereignty in the United States.
The play, "Sovereignty" by Mary Katherine Nagle, portrays the historic circumstances surrounding the case.
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