November 19, 1877 – The U.S. Supreme Court Decides Beecher v. Wetherby

In Beecher v. Wetherby, 95 U.S. 517 (24 L.Ed. 440, 1877), the Court revealed its notions of ethnocentrism and racism in a decision written by Associate Justice Stephen J. Field.

The Court was ruling on a matter (an action of replevin) related to claims of land title in Wisconsin contested by Native tribes. (Replevin is a legal remedy which enables a person to recover personal property taken wrongfully or unlawfully, pending a final determination by a court of law, and to obtain compensation for resulting losses.) Justice Field first acknowledges:

It is true that, for many years before Wisconsin became a State, that tribe occupied various portions of her territory, and roamed over nearly the whole of it.”

But alas, he continued:

… the right which the Indians held was only that of occupancy. The fee was in the United States, subject to that right, and could be transferred by them whenever they chose.”

After all, since “the right which the Indians held was only that of occupancy,” their rights to retain possession would be respected only as long as the government decided it would be:

Congress undoubtedly expected that at no distant day the State would be settled by white people, and the semi-barbarous condition of the Indian tribes would give place to the higher civilization of our race . . . “

However, he stated:

It is to be presumed that in this matter the United States would be governed by such considerations of justice as would control a Christian people in their treatment of an ignorant and dependent race.”

Justice Field was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, supposedly to achieve both regional balance (he was a Westerner) and political balance (he was a Democrat, albeit a Unionist one).

Justice Stephen Johnson Field, in office March 10, 1863 - December 1, 1897

Justice Stephen Johnson Field, in office March 10, 1863 – December 1, 1897

Unfortunately Justice Field often makes lists of “top five worst Supreme Court Justices.” He is particularly known for his racism. He dissented in the 1880 landmark case Strauder v. West Virginia, in which the majority opinion held that a state law barring blacks from jury service violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. He joined the infamous case Plessy v. Ferguson that found a state law was within constitutional boundaries imposing racial segregation, basing the decision on the “separate-but-equal” doctrine. He also expressed racist anti-Chinese-American rhetoric (continuing a pattern he began in California courts), most notably in his majority opinion in the Chinese Exclusion Case, Chae Chan Ping v. United States, and in his dissent in Chew Heong v. United States.

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