SUPREME COURT OPINIONS: The Taney Court (1835 - 1864)


OOOOFor each opinion, the author's name name is given first and in full, the following justices joining in the opinion. Concurring or separate opinions are those which agree with the result of the Court's opinion but differ with the reasoning, larger implications, or simply wish to add an aspect not touched on by the Court. Dissenting opinions, of course, are those which disagree with the Court's ruling. There may even be several dissenting opinions, depending on the nature of the several justices' disagreement.

1837 Proprietors of Charles River Bridge v. Proprietors of Warren River Bridge , 36 US 420 (1837)
Opinion: Chief Justice Roger Taney
Separate: J. John McLean
Dissent: J. Roger Taney
Dissent: J. Smith Thompson

OOOLimited Marshall's decision in the Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward. Taney ruled that whatever rights corporations derive from their charters must be explicitly stated in their charters; that, as he wrote, " grants by the public, nothing passes by implication..." His decision narrowing the reach of contracts was directly related to protecting the public interest against the rights of private property. Taney's decision also affirmed the power of the states - known as the "police power" - to regulate their own internal affairs as they saw fit.
OOOIn the end, the extent of the police power, the tension between private rights and public goods, as well as the power of contracts - of which charters are an example - will continue throughout the entire history of the court to the present day.

1841 United States v. The Libellants And Claimants of the Schooner Amistad , 40 U.S. 518 (1841)
Opinion: Justice Joseph Story

OOOThe Amistad decision.

1852 Cooley v. Board of Port Wardens , 53 U.S. 299 (1852)
Opinion: Justice Benjamin Curtis
Dissent: Justice John McLean
Separate: Justice Peter Daniel

OOOCooley turns on the "commerce power" of Congress as given in Art. 1, § 8 of the Constitution, and the prohibition of states interfering with trade in Art. 1, §§ 9 and 10. The specific question was whether Pennsylvania had the right to enforce its laws requiring pilots on ships entering its ports.
OOOThe decision turned on legislative intent. Curtis, writing for the majority, found that a law passed by Congress in 1789, by recognizing the pilot laws of the states, had de facto left the law-making power over pilotage with the states. McLean, in dissent, opined that with the 1789 law Congress had, on the contrary, not left the law-making power with the states, but had assumed that power unto itself in the form the states had left it.
OOOCooley is one point in the evolution of the commerce power, which would become the chief tool in the extension of federal regulatory power.

1856 Scott v. Sanford , 60 U.S. 393 (1856)
Opinion: Chief Justice Roger Taney

OOOThe infamous Dred Scott decision which held that "A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this countryand sold as slaves, is not a "citizen" within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States...Consequently, the special rights and immunities guarantied to citizens do not apply to them. And not being "citizens" within the meaning of the Constitution, they are not entitled to sue in that character in a court of the United States..."
OOOThe decision also overturned the Missouri Compromise by holding that property-owners had a right to take their property, i.e. slaves, into any state or territory of the United States without fear of being deprived of it. In effect, slaves were no more than property, and could be no more than property.

1863 Prize Cases , 67 U.S. 635 (1863)
Opinion: Justice Robert Grier
Dissent: Justice Samuel Nelson, C.J. Taney, J. Catron, J Clifford

OOOThe cases addressed the President's power to wage war without a formal declaration by Congress. Both Grier in his opinion for the court and Nelson in his dissent agreed that, although only Congress, not the President, could declare war, the President was authorized to meet hostilities, both foreign and domestic, up to any level that was necessary without a formal declaration of war. What they disagreed over, however, was whether the President's actions gave that conflict the legal - as opposed to a merely de facto - character of war: in this case the power to seize neutral ships violating a blockade. Grier said that, as a practical matter, the President's actions had the legal force of war; that if a blockade and seizures were necessary to meeting hostilities, then they were legal.
OOONelson disagreed. Since the events took place during the Civil War, Nelson said that even though the President might meet hostile actions by the seceding states, the conflict was only an insurrection until Congress declared it a war. The difference being that under an insurrection, the President could only act against those individuals actually in rebellion (in effect, breaking the law), not against residents of the southern states who were not, or their property. Conversely, during war it is assumed that all residents are hostiles, thus exposing their property - and the property of neutrals under a blockade - to seizure.