The Marshall Trilogy, 1823-1832
John Marshall was the longest serving Chief Justice in Supreme Court history and played a significant role in the development of the American legal system and federal Indian law. He established that the courts have the power of ‘judicial review’, which is the authority to strike down laws that violate the U.S. Constitution. Marshall has been credited with cementing the position of the American judiciary as an independent and influential branch of government. The Marshall Court made several important decisions relating to federalism, shaping the balance of power between federal government and the states. Among these decisions are the three cases that form the basic framework of federal Indian law in the United States, referred to as the ‘Marshall Trilogy.’
Case 1. Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823)
This case primarily related to land issues and the interpretation of the Doctrine of Discovery in the United States. Doctrine of Discovery mean that ownership of lands lay with the government whose subjects explored and occupied that land whose inhabitants were not subjects of a European monarch. In the United States it meant that when Europeans “discovered” North America, their claim over North America superseded any American Indian claims. When the United States won territory from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War, they also won the claims to all the land. The case involved a man named Thomas Johnson who bought land from the Piankeshaw Indians and William M’Intosh who later obtained a deed to the same land from the United States federal government. The Court was asked to settle the dispute between the two men and sided with M’Intosh. The Court went on to say that the Indians did not own land outright, but that they had rights to occupy lands and only the discovering nation (U.S.) could settle those land rights. Indians could not sell lands to individuals and states do not have legal standing to settle aboriginal land claims. It was ruled that only the federal government could negotiate with Indians over land rights.
Case 2. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831)
In this case, Cherokee Chief John Ross tried to protect Cherokee lands, fight off removal, and to keep the laws of Georgia from being imposed on them by asking for an injunction in the United States Supreme Court. The Cherokees argued that they were a foreign nation and the laws of Georgia did not apply to them. The Court denied the injunction and went on to say that the Cherokees were not a foreign nation, but they were a ‘domestic dependent nation.’ The relationship between the tribes and the United States was like that of a ‘ward to a guardian.’ This case outlined the sovereign nature of tribes as not like states, but not as complete foreign nations either. Tribal sovereignty (authority to govern) was limited by being within the boundaries of the United States, but it was inherent sovereignty, which meant that it predated the United States. The responsibility that the federal government has to tribes takes root from this and the next of the famous Marshall Indian cases. That responsibility is called the ‘doctrine of federal trust responsibility.’ The idea was that in exchange for the taking of land from the tribes, the federal government would protect the tribes in the lands that they ended up with, and compensate them by providing basic necessities such as food, shelter, and basic services to the tribes.
Case 3. Worcester v. (1832)
The last case of the Marshall trilogy involved a missionary, Samuel Worcester, who was preaching on the Cherokee lands, which was prohibited by the laws of Georgia without a state license to do so. Worcester was imprisoned and filed suit against the State of Georgia claiming that the state did not have authority to control activity on the Cherokee lands. The Court sided with Worcester finding that the Cherokee Nation is a distinct community, occupying their own territory, and within which the laws of Georgia could have no force. This decision again established that the federal government, not the states have authority over Indian affairs and that the tribes had inherent sovereignty, the authority to make and enforce their own laws within their lands.
- UAF Interior Aleutians Campus. Federal Indian Law for Alaska Tribes: Unit 1, Marshall Trilogy, http://tm112.community.uaf.edu/unit-1/marshall-trilogy-1823-1832/