Landmark Supreme Court Case: Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823)
Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) is the ninth landmark Supreme Court case, the first in the Foreign Policy module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823)
In 1775, Thomas Johnson and other British citizens purchased land in Virginia from members of the Piankeshaw Indian tribe under a 1763 proclamation by the King of England. When he died, Thomas Johnson left this land to his heirs.
In 1818, William M’Intosh purchased from Congress 11,000 acres of the land originally purchased by Johnson. Johnson’s heirs sued M’Intosh in the United States District Court to recover the land. Ruling that the Piankeshaw tribe did not have the right to convey the land, the federal district court in Illinois held that Johnson’s initial purchase and the chain of title stemming from it were invalid.
M’Intosh Legal Questions and Answers
Q: Can a Native American tribe convey land to individuals?
A: No. Native Americans themselves did not have the right to sell property to individuals.
Unanimous decision ruling Johnson’s lessees cannot eject M’Intosh because their title, derived from private purchases from Indians, could not be valid. M’Intosh’s claim, which was derived from Congress, was superior to Johnson’s claim, which was derived from the non-existent right of Indians to sell their land. The federal government had the sole right of negotiation with the Native American nations.
Next Foreign Policy Case: Worcester v. Georgia (1832)
Next Case: Osborn v. Bank of the United States (1824)
Previous Case: Cohens v. Virginia (1821)