In re Clark (1821)

US Contract Law

re Clark
‘The Cotton Pickers’ by Winslow Homer

The coercion of specific performance can be compelling to most contractual arrangements, however, when the agreement is one based upon involuntary servitude, the law will not assist those seeking to enforce it, despite which guise is chosen. 

In 1821 a negro woman by the name of Mary Clark filed a writ of habeas corpus to the Knox Circuit Court, on grounds that she was being unlawfully detained under a written indenture dated 1816, and one deemed effective for a period of twenty years.

Having viewed the construction of the contract, the court held it sufficient enough to bind upon both parties,  upon which the woman appealed before the Supreme Court of Indiana, who reexamined the validity of the agreement within the context of its construction.

As was known at the time, indentures were typically drafted to observe compliance with prescribed rules of conduct between a master and his apprentice, which by definition was a relationship founded upon obedience through transferred parental authority or loco parentis.

However at the execution of this particular indenture, both parties were of sufficient maturity to rescind the agreement should it no longer serve mutual interests, and so it was claimed that the arrangement was not one voluntarily executed, but instead by way of enslavement.

With consideration of numerous forms of contracts, including dispositions of land, the court was moved to stress that inequality arising from any notion that the legal system would assist in the enforcement of an agreement designed to impute inferiority between one person and another, was both unconstitutional and inhumane in equal measure, and so in holding the contract void, the court reminded the parties that:

Deplorable indeed would be the state of society, if the obligee in every contract had a right to seize the person of the obligor, and force him to comply with his undertaking. In contracts for personal service, the exercise of such a right would be most alarming in its consequences….”

While discharging the appellant from her alleged contractual obligations on grounds that:

“[W]hen the law will not directly coerce a specific performance, it will not leave a party to exercise the law of the strong, and coerce it in his own behalf.”

Before reversing the circuit court judgment in full and awarding costs in favour of the appellant, and now lawfully free woman.

Coleman v. State (1995)

US Criminal Law

Coleman v. State
‘Criminal Type’ by Jeremy Norton

When an alleged robbery resulted in threatening behaviour, the defendant argued that absence of evidence to support the initial act reduced the charge to one of theft under Indiana State law.

Having stolen five rolls of camera film from a Muncie supermarket, the defendant was seen taking the items by a single witness, who after the defendant had left the store, indirectly notified the store manager, who then confronted the defendant outside on the pavement.

In response to his challenge, the defendant brandished a knife and threatened the manager, after which the manager stood down and retreated back inside the shop, only for the State police to arrest the defendant when he somewhat naively returned to the scene of the crime.

Convicted of robbery before a Delaware Circuit Court jury, the Court of Appeals of Indiana Second District reversed the judgment on grounds that § 35-42-5-1 of the Indiana Code defines robbery as present when:

“A person who knowingly or intentionally takes property from another person or from the presence of another person:

(1) By using or threatening the use of force on any person; or

(2) By putting any person in fear….”

And that in Eckelberry v. State, the Indiana Supreme Court had previously held that:

“The force necessary to constitute robbery must be employed before the property is stolen. If the stealing be first, and the force afterwards, the offense is not robbery, but stealing from the person.”

After which the case was heard again before the Indiana Supreme Court, who reviewed their position with regard to the defendant leaving the property after the threatening behaviour, further noting that in Paul v. State the court had ruled a store clerk as solely responsible for the contents stolen, and so a conviction of robbery could lawfully stand.

It also noted that in Eckelberry, the court had concluded that when the defendant injured their victim immediately after taking their property, the two events were merely equal parts of the same act, therefore the court reversed the appeal court decision and upheld the robbery charge in full.