Puerto Rico v. Branstad

483 U. S. 219

June 23, 1987

While in Puerto Rico, Ronald Calder killed a woman and her unborn baby by running his car over them. After promising not to leave before trial, Calder fled to Iowa and successfully convinced the governor to block his extradition (Fun fact! Terry Branstad is still Governor of Iowa nearly three decades later). Puerto Rico said that federal law gave Iowa no right to refuse an extradition request, but a Supreme Court case from 1861 called Dennison held, on the grounds of federalism and states rights, that federal courts had no constitutional power to enforce extradition when a state refused.

Unanimously, the Court ordered Iowa to hand over Calder under the federal law. Marshall wrote the decision, which unceremoniously overruled Dennison. Its extreme states rights logic had not been followed by the Court in other contexts in the ensuing century, and there was no reason why extradition should continue remain an exception. As an aside, Marshall noted that the extradition clause of the Constitution itself imposed a mandatory, non-discretionary duty. While the extradition clause arguably did not apply to Puerto Rico, a territory, the federal law included territories by its express terms. O’Connor, joined by Powell, declined to join the aside about the extradition clause, finding it unnecessary. Scalia concurred in judgment. He blandly noted that the extradition law could potentially be unconstitutional, but abstained from exploring the possibility further because no party had argued it.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this case is Justice Marshall’s casual use of the words “unborn child” to describe one of Calder’s victims. No insistent use of terminology like ‘fetus’ or ‘product of conception’ here! Neither is there an evasive declaration that “[w]e need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” No – here in this case, Marshall and company accidentally let the mask slip, and told the truth.

And that is the most horrifying thing of all: despite professed agnosticism elsewhere, Marshall and the other Justices actually do understand completely that a baby is killed by abortion. “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light, and light for darkness” – Isaiah 5:20.

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