Summary of Luther v. Borden
Citation: 48 U.S. 1 (1849)
Relevant Facts: Rhode Island, unlike other states, did not adopt a new constitution following national independence; rather, they continued to operate under the old colonial charter constitution as amended. In the absence of specified amendment procedures within the charter constitution, a group of Rhode Island citizens came together and called for a constitutional convention with a new constitution to be submitted to the people for approval. Following the convention, proponents called for a vote on the proposed constitution and thereafter asserted that a majority had ratified and was therefore in effect. New elections were held for various state offices under the new constitution. The existing charter government refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new constitution and responded to attempts to institute a new government by passing stringent laws and eventually declaring that the State was under martial law. Originally a political dispute, the disagreements regarding legitimacy of two competing governments for the State eventually turned violent and came to be known as the Dorr Rebellion. Martin Luther, a participant in the rebellion, brought suit against Luther Borden, an agent of the charter government. Respondent Borden, in the course of arresting Luther, allegedly entered his home and damaged his property. As part of his suit, Luther contended that the new government and new constitution, rather than the charter government, were in force and that the new government was the legitimate State government. Luther, like other proponents of reform, argued that the new government was republican in character as it expanded voting rights; furthermore, they claimed that the charter government failed to satisfy the guarantee of republican government mandated by the Federal Constitution. In prosecuting his suit, Luther sought a judicial declaration that the new government was the legitimate government of Rhode Island. State courts ruled in favor of Borden and the charter government. Luther appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
Issue: Whether the constitutional guarantee of a republican form of government compelled the Court to recognize the legitimacy of the new government of Rhode Island rather than the charter government?
Holding: No, the question of republican government in the states is a nonjusticiable political question best left to the political branches of the federal government.
Reasoning: Chief Justice Taney delivered the opinion of the Court. First, the majority pointed out the novelty of the factual background in this case, where opposing sides in a state dispute threatened to thrust that state into civil war. Following recitation of the extensive background, and the competing claims to legitimacy by two separate state governments, Chief Justice Taney explained that the various issues presented here- including voter qualification, authority of state courts, and republican nature of government- were best decided by the state. Furthermore, the constitutional claim regarding guarantees of a republican form of government was best left to the political branches rather than the courts. Justice Taney also pointed out that several of the issues in this case, including what constituted a majority and whether a majority had adopted the new constitution, were factual questions inappropriate for resolution by the Supreme Court. Finally, the majority explained that the major claims in this case were political, rather than judicial, and best decided by officials directly elected by the people. While the Court should always be willing to pass judgment on the legitimacy of Congressional actions and of state actions that may conflict with federal law, the Court should also take notice of limitations on its authority and jurisdiction. Here, the majority explained that a change in the form and authority of a state government should be decided by the people of that state. In determining whether a new government has been properly established, and thereby displaces the old government, the people should look to the political branches to declare the changes in effect. Then and only then, the majority explained, would the Court take notice of such changes. Accordingly, the Court declined to express an opinion as to the legitimacy of either government and instead left the issue for resolution by the state and its citizens.
Dissent: Justice Woodbury dissented, and argued that state legislatures lack the authority to declare martial law. He would have reached the merits of the underlying case, and while allowing the defendants the opportunity to make a defense, strongly doubted that they could justify their behavior based on the laws of war. As he explained, they lacked the authority (from the legislature) to act as though at war, and even assuming they had apparent authority to act, were still responsible if their conduct exceeded their apparent authority.
Conclusion: The Supreme Court is of limited jurisdiction. In addition to constitutional limitations, the Court will decline to hear certain cases when the questions presented are best decided by the political branches of government. Here, the majority explained that the legitimacy of state government and new state constitutions is best determined by the people of that state and their representatives rather than the Supreme Court. As a result, the Court established the political question doctrine and determined that the constitutional guarantee of republican government was nonjusticiable.