Luther v. Borden, 7 Howard (48 U.S.) 1; 12 L. Ed. 581 (1849)

Luther v. Borden, 7 Howard (48 U.S.) 1; 12 L. Ed. 581 (1849)

Facts—In 1841 the people of the state of Rhode Island were still using the old colonial charter with a few minor revisions, as their state constitution. This constitution strictly limited the right to vote. Led by a man named Dorr, the people at various mass meetings throughout the state instituted a new constitution whereby suffrage was greatly increased. The state government claimed that this was an insurrection and appealed to the president to declare martial law. Although then President Tyler pledged his support for the Char- ter Government, no federal forces were used. Members of the state militia led by Borden forced their way into the house of Luther, a Dorr adherent, who sued for trespass. Luther moved to Massachusetts in order to legalize a suit on the basis of diversity of citizenship.

Question—Can the Court decide as to the guaranty of a republican form of a state’s government in accordance with Article IV, Section 4?


ReasonsC.J. Taney (8–1). This is a purely political question and must be left in the hands of the political branches of the government to decide. Their decision moreover may not be questioned in a judicial tribunal. It would constitute a usurpation of power for the Supreme Court to attempt to decide the question. It the Court were to recognize the Dorr Government, actions of the Charter Government would be needlessly called into question. The enforcement of the guarantee of a republican form of government rests with the president or Congress. Congress makes such a decision when de- termining whether or not to seat a state’s representatives. By law Congress designated the power to protect state governments to the president, and, in this case, the president had indicated his support for the Dorr Government. The visibility of the president’s office helps keep such power from being abused.

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