On This Day in Supreme Court History—February 5, 1813

On this day in 1813, the Supreme Court decided Mima Queen v. Hepburn, an appeal of a suit of an enslaved woman who claimed her freedom. The Court rejected her appeal, holding that the hearsay evidence Mima Queen relied on to establish that her great grandmother was a free woman of color who was wrongly enslaved—and therefore that Mima Queen and her daughter should be free—was insufficient.

At trial in Mima Queen’s freedom suit, a witness stated in a deposition that he heard that Mima Queen’s great grandmother, Mary Queen, was from another country and that when she arrived in America “she had a great many fine clothes, and that old William Chapman took her on shore once, and that nobody would buy her for some time, until at last James Caroll bought her.”

The trial court instructed the jury to disregard this deposition if it determined “that the existence of the report was not stated by the deponent of his own knowledge, but from what had been communicated to him respecting the existence of such a report many years after her importation, without its appearing by whom or in what manner the same was communicated to him.” The jury found the evidence insufficient to give Mima Queen her freedom. Her lawyer, Francis Scott Key (most famous as the author of the “Star-Spangled Banner”), appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Chief affirmed the lower court’s decision. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion of the Court.

Although courts had recognized exceptions to the hearsay rule for some “cases of pedigree, of prescription, of custom, and in some cases of boundary,” the Chief Justice declined to make an exception here. He found unpersuasive the argument that knowledgeable sources might be dead and therefore unable to testify:

If the circumstance that the eye witnesses of any fact be dead should justify the introduction of testimony to establish that fact from hearsay, no man could feel safe in any property, a claim to which might be supported by proof so easily obtained.

The sole dissenter in the case was Justice Gabriel Duvall. Although Duvall wrote very few opinions throughout his tenure on the Court, he felt moved to write a dissent here. The Court should make an exception to the hearsay rule in cases in which freedom is on the line, he insisted. If the courts allowed for hearsay evidence “in cases of pedigree or in controversies relative to the boundaries of land,” then why not when one’s freedom was on the line?

It will be universally admitted that the right to freedom is more important than the right of property.

And people of color from their helpless condition under the uncontrolled authority of a master, are entitled to all reasonable protection. A decision that hearsay evidence in such cases shall not be admitted, cuts up by the roots all claims of the kind, and puts a final end to them, unless the claim should arise from a fact of recent date, and such a case will seldom, perhaps never, occur.

Over Duvall’s dissent, the Chief Justice and the rest of the Court sided with property rights over human freedom. What happened to Mima Queen and her daughter after their loss at the Supreme Court is unknown.


This post was drafted by ISCOTUS Fellow Bridget Flynn, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019, and was edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Anna Jirschele, Chicago-Kent Class of 2018, and ISCOTUS Co-Director and Chicago-Kent faculty member Christopher Schmidt.

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