The US Supreme Court is weighing whether the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 can be reinstated, after its previous version was struck down by the high court in 2016.
The US Constitution allows Congress to establish “a uniform rule of criminal procedure” for criminal defendants, but the law has been widely criticised for failing to adequately address the plight of slave-holders.
A federal appeals court ruled that the law violated the 1854 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which allows a state to prohibit slavery within its borders, unless Congress can “properly define slavery”.
The ruling means that a federal court must review the case of a Florida man, Daniel Jackson, who was accused of being a slaveholder and sent to the state penitentiary in January for a failed escape attempt.
Jackson, who claims he was held for years in a “cruel and unusual” punishment, has not been seen since.
His lawyers have said he has “lost consciousness” and his body is “unresponsive”.
The case has been sent back to Florida to decide if it can reopen.
Jackson’s lawyer, Charles Smith, told Al Jazeera that “it’s not going to be easy to reopen the case.
It’s going to take a lot of work to get the case back on track”.
In a brief filed in December, Smith argued that the federal government has failed to provide a full and fair hearing in the case, which is expected to last at least two years.
The case is the latest to come under scrutiny as the Supreme Court considers whether the law should be reinstated.
Last year, a Florida judge ordered the state to reopen an escape attempt case involving a former slave.
In that case, a slave-holder who escaped from a prison in Louisiana was held on the island of St Martin in Florida for nearly 10 years before escaping to the mainland.
In 2015, a federal judge upheld the ruling and ordered Florida to return a slave named William Lee to the island, which he claims is his rightful home.
The state appealed, but lost, and is currently appealing the ruling to the Supreme “because of the serious nature of the crime of escape that is the subject of this case”, said Smith.
In a 2016 case, the Supreme court ruled in favor of an Arkansas man accused of using a fake passport to travel to Florida.
The judge in that case ruled that his case was not the same as Jackson’s, as the defendant’s claim of having been held for “a very long time” was “simply not sufficient to establish a substantive violation of the Fugitives Slave Act”.
“There is no question that the government has demonstrated, with the assistance of numerous experts, that there are serious flaws in the law that should be corrected,” the court ruled.