- National power.
- Separation of powers.
Why Decision is Important:
- Stated that treaties between the United States government and Indian nations are the supreme law of the land.
- Declared that the federal government, not the state, had exclusive jurisdiction over
- Cherokee nation's territory; therefore, Georgia laws taking jurisdiction of Cherokee people and land were void.
- President Jackson supported Georgia in defying this ruling, and Native American removal followed.
Georgia passed laws restricting authority of the Cherokee over their lands. Among these was a law requiring all whites living in Cherokee Indian Territory, including missionaries and persons married to Cherokee, to obtain a state license to live there. After seven missionaries refused to obtain licenses, they were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to four years of hard labor. They refused to obey the military when they were asked to leave the state. They appealed their case to the United States Supreme Court, arguing that the law under which they had been convicted was unconstitutional because states have no authority to pass laws concerning sovereign Indian Nations.
The missionaries Samuel Worcester and Elizur Butler were arrested by Georgia because of their opposition to Cherokee removal. If they had applied for state licenses, they would have been denied. The Georgia state courts had previously deferred to Worcester because of his federal appointment as postmaster to New Echota, the Cherokee capital. However, George Rockingham Gilmer, the governor of Georgia, persuaded the federal government to withdraw Worcester's appointment as postmaster in order to make him subject to arrest.
Chief Justice John Marshall laid out in this opinion the relationship between the Indian Nations and the United States is that of nations. He argued that the United States, in the character of the federal government, inherited the rights of Great Britain as they were held by that nation. Those rights, he stated, are the sole right of dealing with the Indian nations in North America, to the exclusion of any other European power, and not the rights of possession to their land or political dominion over their laws. He acknowledged that the exercise of conquest and purchase can give political dominion, but those are in the hands of the federal government and not the states.
The court ruled that the Cherokee Nation was a "distinct community" with self-government "in which the laws of Georgia can have no force." It established the doctrine that the national government of the United States, and not individual states, had authority in American Indian affairs.