Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1861, is probably best remembered for writing the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott decision and its atrocious statement that black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
Yet on March 14, 1861, he delivered the majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Kentucky v. Dennison considerably friendlier to African Americans, by implication if not by design. The case involved extradition law and whether federal courts could compel state governors to honor warrants of extradition from other states.
The case had begun in October 1859 when Willis Lago, a free man of color, helped a slave named Charlotte to escape from her Kentucky master. Lago was indicted by a grand jury in Woodford County, Kentucky, for assisting in the escape which was a crime under Kentucky law. By the time Kentucky authorities tried to bring Lago into custody, he was in Ohio. So Kentucky sought to extradite Willis Lago by applying to William Dennison, the Governor of Ohio. Dennison, an avowed opponent of the fugitive slave law (which wasn’t applicable because Lago was free), refused to honor the extradition request. Kentucky took Dennison to federal court to compel him to deliver up Willis Lago for prosecution.
Roger B. Taney, writing for a unanimous court, indicated that Governor Dennison had a duty to honor a request for extradition, but federal authority could not compel Dennison, or any other state governor, to do so. Chief Justice Taney wrote, “It is true that Congress may authorize a particular State officer to perform a particular duty, but if he declines to do so, it does not follow that he may be coerced or punished for his refusal. . . . if the Governor of Ohio refuses to discharge this duty, there is no power delegated to the General Government, either through the Judicial Department or any other department, to use any coercive means to compel him.“
While Kentucky v. Dennison was a victory for states’ rights, in this case it prevented Kentucky from prosecuting a free man of color for helping a slave to escape to freedom and by implication made the federal Fugitive Slave Act harder to enforce. Certainly this was not Roger Taney’s intention, who no doubt saw the case in light of the larger issue of federalism. Nonetheless, it was an important blow against slavery on the eve of the Civil War.
Interestingly, Kentucky v. Dennison remained the controlling U.S. Supreme Court decision on whether the federal government could compel governors to honor extradition requests until 1987, when the court overturned it in the case of Puerto Rico v. Branstad, granting federal courts the authority to compel extradition.
For the full text of Roger B. Taney’s opinion in Dennison v. Kentucky visit the website of Legal Information Institute at the Cornell University Law School at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0065_0066_ZO.html