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Remarks of Justice Flemming L. Norcott, Jr.
on the occasion of the Supreme Court 200th
Anniversary Celebration
June 6, 2008

United States v. The Amistad

In order to place this case in context, I ask you to think about the United States as this country existed in the first half of the nineteenth century. We were a new country in the world order, struggling to establish our place. It was not so long after the war for independence, and there were decades to go before the civil war. Our system of government, the likes of which had never been seen, was being shaped by the actions of the chief executive, by the passage of new laws by congress, and by the nascent jurisprudence of the American courts.

Now imagine a former president of the United States arguing a case before the United States Supreme Court – for four and one-half hours. Imagine the remarkable events that would give rise to that most unusual circumstance. The historical context of this case, and its impact on history, are among the many aspects of the Amistad case that underscore it's significance. As with most cases, the facts describe an unresolved conflict presented to a court for resolution. Unlike most cases, these facts reveal bravery and avarice and diplomatic conflict at the highest level among nations, all against the backdrop of one of the most difficult issues our nation has ever confronted. It is certain that the Africans who rebelled against their captors could not imagine that their personal conflict would change the course of American history.

In 1839, when the vessel Amistad was towed to New London, slavery was legal in the south, as was possession of slaves in Connecticut. Spain had outlawed slavery, with a notable exception for those born into slavery before 1820. Therefore, a Spanish vessel carrying slaves with proper documentation was breaking no law, nor violating any treaty, by sailing into United States – or Connecticut - waters. The lure of lucre led untold numbers of slave-traders to produce or procure fraudulent papers to take advantage of that loophole. Such was the case with the kidnapped Africans on board the Amistad when the vessel was found in Long Island sound.

At the outset, I would like to point out that the series of trials and appeals that are collectively referred to as the Amistad case is truly a triumph for the rule of law, and testament to the role of the courts in upholding the law, even in the face of public controversy. Inevitably, issues that create conflict in society find a forum in the courts. At the time these cases were decided, there was strong public sentiment on both sides of the slavery issue. Compromises regarding slavery were brokered in the political arena before the war for independence and continued up to and beyond former president Adams’ argument before the United States Supreme Court. But, while these debates framed the public discourse, they could not be permitted to interfere with – or determine - the courts’ rulings in this matter.

Many of you know the essential facts of this case: the kidnapping of the Mendi tribe members in Africa and their indescribably tortured passage aboard the ship; their successful fight for freedom on board the ship against their captors; the ensuing capture of the ship and its “cargo” off the Connecticut coast; and the imprisonment of the Mendi tribesmen in new haven pending resolution of the case. This compelling and very human story continued as the tribesmen were charged in federal court with piracy and murder.

This criminal aspect of the case was the subject of the first trial, and was the first legal matter to be disposed of by the court. The U.S. Circuit Court in Hartford determined that the alleged crimes took place in Spanish territory and, thus, were not within the jurisdiction of the district court. This is an important affirmation of a seminal rule of law. It is a recognition by the court that only matters that are properly within its jurisdiction can be acted on. Do not lose sight of how powerful a statement this is. A court, vested by the constitution with limited power granted by the people, recognizes and acts solely within that grant of authority. It was critically important then, and remains so today, that the court act solely within the authority granted by our constitutional system of government.

The second trial, then, became focused on competing property claims: that of the surviving crew members, Ruiz and Montez, to reclaim the ship and its contents; that of the naval officers who presented a salvage claim for the same; and – signaling the international magnitude of the litigation to follow – a claim by the Spanish government for the return of the ship pursuant to a 1795 treaty with the united states.

None of those claims initially spoke to the fate of the Mendi as free men and women. It was not until their attorney – hired for them by abolitionists - argued that release of the kidnapped tribesmen was required as a matter of law and of right did the significance of their plight take hold in the public conscience. This presented what was ultimately the most important question: whether the court should treat the Africans as property or as free people. This question had decidedly political overtones that had been evaded in the political arena for decades.

The second trial was held in the new haven courthouse, and was presided over by district court Judge Andrew T. Judson. Judge Judson had been appointed to the federal bench by president martin Van Buren who, by all accounts, devoted a tremendous effort to avoiding the slavery issue. Popular accounts of the judge’s ruling expressed surprise, then, that he would find that the Africans were not slaves. That conclusion was based on his finding that the “documentation” presented by the surviving crew in their claim was not credible. This finding effectively closed the loophole in the treaty that, at least in this case, the slave-traders had been exploiting.

Facing international pressure from Spain, the U.S. government appealed the ruling, which eventually found its way to the United States Supreme Court. Understanding the critical importance of the argument to the Supreme Court in support of upholding the district and circuit court rulings, the abolitionists convinced former president john Quincy Adams to argue the case. Funding to support the litigation was provided by the abolitionists. Attorney Roger Sherman Baldwin, grandson of roger Sherman who would later become governor of Connecticut, was the lead attorney for the Africans. Other supporters included Lewis Tappan of New York, who had a summer home in new haven. Adams had previously been invited to participate in the case but had declined. He was a member of the House of Representatives at the time, was 74 years old, and not at all certain he could do justice to the case. Clearly his concerns were not well founded, as he argued for four and one-half hours. His arguments addressing the meaning of the United States constitution must have been especially compelling for the court, coming from the son of a founding father who was also a former president.

Justice Story, himself among the most distinguished justices to serve on the United States Supreme Court, delivered the opinion of the court which begins with the simple declarative statement: “this is the case of an appeal from the decree of the circuit court of the district of Connecticut, sitting in admiralty.” Following a three page exposition on the facts of the case, the court then emphasized the actual posture of the case as it had been presented. The opinion noted that the United States government was not asserting any property interest, or violation of federal law. Rather, the argument of the attorney-general on appeal spoke to the government's interest in upholding a valid treaty between the United States and Spain. This speaks, once again, to the maxim that the court resolves only the issues that are properly before it. The constitutionality of slavery was not before the court – but the status of the Mendi tribesman as free men was. The court continued on to articulate the law governing the dispute before it stating the inevitable conclusion that “[i]t is plain beyond controversy, if we examine the evidence, that these Negroes never were the lawful slaves of Ruiz and Montez, or of any other Spanish subjects.”

Once this clear statement of truth was set down, the rule of law demanded that the men be set free. For ours is a system of laws, and not of men. It was not the preference of the attorney general, or President Adams, that ultimately determined the outcome of this case. The proper operation of the rule of law in a system of government that respects the rights of all and the freedom of each could countenance no other result. The opinion also upheld the right to rebel against unlawful slavery. Finally, the opinion of the United States Supreme Court issued in 1841 signaled to the south that slavery, where it had been abolished, would remain so under the rule of law.

You probably already know the rest of the story of the Mendi. Following additional successful fundraising efforts by the abolitionists, the 35 remaining tribesmen returned to what is now the country of Sierra Leone – 18 had not survived their three years of captivity. Among the lessons I take away from this case, and I have revisited it many times, is that we should never take for granted the freedoms we enjoy. I would like to close by quoting remarks delivered by Justice Zarella at our recent bar admission ceremony last month.

"In a country, like ours, that is defined by freedom for all its people, it’s sometimes easy to take for granted this form of government as well as the freedoms it protects. It can also be all too easy for us to take for granted the inherent promise that our system makes to people when they walk into a courthouse. The promise is simply this: no matter who you are, or where you come from, no matter how much money you make, or what color your skin is, what sex you are, or how and if you worship, you will be treated fairly, and the judge will make his or her decision based on the facts of the case and the applicable law. The promise is that decisions will be made free of passion and prejudice and untainted by public opinion."

I encourage you to take a moment at the reception in the state museum to view the panels depicting the Amistad case that were so generously loaned to us for this occasion by Amistad America, Inc. I know that you will be moved by what those panels represent in the history of American courts.


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