Landmark Supreme Court Case: U.S. v. Amistad (1841)
U.S. v. Amistad (1841) is the fifteenth landmark Supreme Court case, and first case in the Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality 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.
U.S. v. Amistad (1841)
On June 27, 1839, the Spanish ship The Amistad left the port of Havana, Cuba, with Captain Ransom Ferrer; two passengers, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez; and 53 African slaves on board. The Amistad was traveling along the coast of Cuba on its way to a port for re-sale of the slaves. The African captives, Mende people who had been kidnapped in the area of Sierra Leone in West Africa, illegally sold into slavery, and shipped to Cuba, escaped their shackles and took over the ship killing the captain and the cook while two other crew members escaped in a lifeboat.
The Mende directed the two Spanish navigator survivors to return them to Africa, but the crew tricked them, sailing north at night. La Amistad was later apprehended near Long Island, New York, by the United States Revenue Cutter Service (the predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard) and taken into custody.
In 1840, a federal district court found that the transport of the kidnapped Africans across the Atlantic Ocean on the Portuguese slave ship Tecora was in violation of laws and accepted treaties against the international slave trade by Great Britain and Ireland, Spain, and the United States. The captives were ruled to have acted as free men when they fought to escape their kidnapping and illegal confinement. The court ruled the Africans were entitled to take whatever legal measures necessary to secure their freedom, including the use of force. Under international and Southern sectional pressure, American President Martin Van Buren ordered the case appealed to the Supreme Court
Q: Are the alleged slaves the property of Ruiz and Montez
A: No. The Africans are free, and were remanded to be released; Lt. Gedney’s claims of salvage are granted, remanded to the United States Circuit Court for the District of Connecticut for further proceedings in monetary manners.
7-1 decision holding the kidnapping and transportation of the alleged slaves was illegal because the laws of Spain forbid the slave trade and the importation of slaves into the dominions of Spain; therefore, because the alleged slaves were not in fact slaves, they were kidnapped Africans who were unlawfully taken from their shores and detained on The Amistad. The United States is bound to respect the rights of the free Africans as much as the rights of the Spanish subjects, and therefore the Africans’ rights to their own lives and liberty must supersede any obligations that Spain’s treaty with the United States imposes to protect property rights. The Court also held that when The Amistad arrived in American waters, it was under the control of the free Africans, who were clearly not importing themselves as slaves, so they need not be delivered to the President to be transported back to Africa. Instead, they should simply be declared free.
Next Case In Politics, Society, Freedom and Equality: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
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