The Cherokee Nation v. Georgia

Cherokee Nation v. Georgia


Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, 30 U.S. (5 Pet.) 1 (1831), was a United States Supreme Court case. The Cherokee Nation sought a federal injunction against laws passed by the U.S. state of Georgia depriving them of rights within its boundaries, but the Supreme Court did not hear the case on its merits. It ruled that it had no original jurisdiction in the matter, as the Cherokees were a dependent nation, with a relationship to the United States like that of a “ward to its guardian,” as said by Chief Justice Marshall.

In June 1830, a delegation of Cherokee led by Chief John Ross (selected at the urging of Senators Daniel Webster and Theodore Frelinghuysen) and William Wirt, attorney general in the Monroe and Adams administrations, were selected to defend Cherokee rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. The Cherokee Nation asked for an injunction, claiming that Georgia’s state legislation had created laws that “go directly to annihilate the Cherokees as a political society.” Georgia pushed hard to bring evidence that the Cherokee Nation couldn’t sue as a “foreign” nation due to the fact that they did not have a constitution or a strong central government. Wirt argued that “the Cherokee Nation [was] a foreign nation in the sense of our constitution and law” and was not subject to Georgia’s jurisdiction. Wirt asked the Supreme Court to void all Georgia laws extended over Cherokee lands on the grounds that they violated the U.S. Constitution, United States-Cherokee treaties, and United States intercourse laws.

The Court did hear the case but declined to rule on the merits. The Court determined that the framers of the Constitution did not really consider the Indian Tribes as foreign nations but more as “domestic dependent nation[s]” and consequently the Cherokee Nation lacked the standing to sue as a “foreign” nation. Chief Justice Marshall said; “The court has bestowed its best attention on this question, and, after mature deliberation, the majority is of the opinion that an Indian tribe or nation within the United States is not a foreign state in the sense of the constitution, and cannot maintain an action in the courts of the United States.” The Court held open the possibility that it yet might rule in favor of the Cherokee “in a proper case with proper parties”.

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that “the relationship of the tribes to the United States resembles that of a ‘ward to its guardian’.”[28] Justice William Johnson added that the “rules of nations” would regard “Indian tribes” as “nothing more than wandering hordes, held together only by ties of blood and habit, and having neither rules nor government beyond what is required in a savage state.”[29]

Justice Smith Thompson, in a dissenting judgment joined by Justice Joseph Story, held that the Cherokee nation was a “foreign state” in the sense that the Cherokee retained their “usages and customs and self-government” and the United States government had treated them as “competent to make a treaty or contract”.[30] The Court therefore had jurisdiction; Acts passed by the State of Georgia were “repugnant to the treaties with the Cherokees” and directly in violation of a congressional Act of 1802;[31] and the injury to the Cherokee was severe enough to justify an injunction against the further execution of the state laws.[32]