The Marshall Court (1801–35)


In what decision did the Marshall Court rule that a state can release debtors from prison?

The Marshall Court ruled in Mason v. Haile (1827) that the state of Rhode Island constitutionally could prohibit debtors from being imprisoned without violating the U.S. Constitution. Writing for the majority of the Court, Justice Smith Thompson reasoned that “we are not aware that such a power in the States has ever been questioned.” He stated that release debtors do “not take away the entire remedy, but only so far as imprisonment forms a part of such remedy.”

Justice Bushrod Washington filed the Court’s lone dissent. He believed the case was controlled by Sturges v. Crowninshield (1819) in which the Court ruled that a state could not relieve a debtor from bankruptcy if the original contract was made before the passage of the bankruptcy law. “If the principle which governs the two cases can be reconciled with each other, the course of reasoning by which it is to be effected is quite too subtle for my mind to comprehend it,” Washington wrote frankly.


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