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Circuit Court Opinions:

Associate Justice Peter Vivian Daniel, United States v. Alberty (1844)

Associate Justice Peter Vivian Daniel (1841–1860)

United States v. Alberty, 24 F. Cas. 765 (C.C.D. Ark. 1844) (No. 14,426) [Ninth Circuit]

In 1834, the Indian Intercourse Act established the Indian Territory, an area mostly west of the Mississippi River designated for the settlement of American Indians displaced by the federal government’s policy of Indian removal in the eastern United States. The territory’s borders shrank over time, and it ceased to exist when incorporated into the state of Oklahoma in 1907. The 1834 act provided that federal criminal law would apply in the territory except as to crimes committed by one Indian against another. For purposes of the act, much of the Indian Territory was annexed to the neighboring Arkansas Territory, so the Arkansas territorial courts had jurisdiction over many criminal cases arising in the Indian Territory.

In April 1844, the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Arkansas heard Alberty, in which an Indian was alleged to have killed a white man in the Indian Territory. The defendant moved for dismissal of the case on the ground that the court lacked jurisdiction, and Justice Daniel agreed. The 1834 act had vested the courts of Arkansas Territory with criminal jurisdiction over the Indian Territory, but when Arkansas was admitted to the Union as a state in 1836, wrote Daniel, “the territorial government of Arkansas may be said to have been annihilated.”

Neither the legislation establishing Arkansas as a state nor that creating its federal courts provided for federal court jurisdiction over the Indian Territory. The fact that Congress had specifically provided for this jurisdiction in the 1834 act proved that legislation was necessary to establish it, Daniel reasoned, and there was no justification to presume that the newly established Arkansas federal courts possessed such jurisdiction absent an explicit grant from Congress. As a result, Daniel dismissed the case.

Congress quickly remedied the omission Daniel had identified. In June 1844, it enacted a statute vesting Arkansas federal courts with the same criminal jurisdiction over the Indian Territory that the Arkansas territorial courts had possessed under the 1834 act.