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Ableman v. Booth

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Significance: The Supreme Court held that the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was constitutional and ruled that a state court may not issue a writ of habeas corpus to release a person from federal custody.


Joshua Glover, a fugitive slave from Missouri, found work in a Wisconsin mill. Under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the U.S. commissioner in Milwaukee issued an order for Glover's arrest. An angry group of about one hundred men broke into the Milwaukee jail and rescued Glover, who escaped to Canada. Sherman Booth, a dynamic speaker who edited an antislavery newspaper, was convicted in federal court for taking part in the rescue. Not long after, the Wisconsin supreme court declared the 1850 law invalid, and one judge of the court issued a writ of habeas corpus to have Booth released. The court's action was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Writing for a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney reaffirmed the authority of the federal government to capture runaway slaves and ruled that a state court lacked jurisdiction over a person in federal custody. In response, Wisconsin's supreme court split evenly concerning whether or not to recognize federal supremacy in the matter. Taney's opinion on federal supremacy was upheld in Tarble's Case (1872), and that aspect of the decision remains good law.