Monday, September 18, 2006


United States Supreme Court's Power to Review State Court Decisions

Just because the Supreme Court gave to itself the power to overrule acts of Congress as unconstitutional, this did not convince many state courts that the Supreme Court had the power to declare their rulings unconstitutional.

This issue was addressed in the case of Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. (1 Wheat) 304, 4 L.E. 97 (1816).

1. The Facts Of The Case

Before the Revolutionary War, an Englishman by the name of Lord Fairfax had been given about 300,000 acres of land in Virginia. When the Americans won the war, Lord Fairfax left the country and returned to England. There he died in 1781. He left his lands to his nephew, Mr. Martin. While the Revolutionary War was going on, the Virginia Legislature enacted a law forfeiting the lands of those not loyal to the new American government.

No one had yet declared the Fairfax lands forfeit under this Virginia law when, in 1783, the United States signed a Treaty with Great Britain preventing the confiscation of the land of British subjects. Two years after this treaty went into effect, a Virginia Court determined some of the Fairfax lands now owned by Mr. Martin to be forfeit.

After much litigation, the case reached the Virginia Court of Appeals in 1810 which ruled Mr. Martin’s lands forfeit. Mr. Martin appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

2. The Arguments

The Virginia Court argued that the Judiciary Act of 1789 (passed by Congress setting up many of the powers of the federal courts and giving the US Supreme Court the power to reverse state court opinions) was unconstitutional.

Back at the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Story did not find this argument very compelling. Writing for the majority, he held that:

"The appellate power is not limited by the terms of the third article [of the U.S. Constitution] to any particular courts. The words are, ‘the judicial power (which includes the appellate power) shall extend to all cases,’ &c., and ‘in all other cases before mentioned the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction.’ It is the case then, and not the court, that gives the jurisdiction. If the judicial power extends to the case it will be in vain to search in the letter of the constitution for any qualification as to the tribunal where it depends."

Virginia did not argue that its laws were on an equal footing to Federal law and treaties. In fact it conceded the supremacy of federal law and treaties to its own. But for Virginia, this merely begged another question. Just because federal legislative acts were supreme, that did not mean that federal courts were.

What gave the U.S. Supreme Court authority to reverse the Virginia court ruling which held that there was no conflict between the Treaty and the forfeiture statute? Virginia argued that its own courts were just as competent as the U.S. Supreme Court to find a conflict between the Federal and State law and thus rule in favor of the Federal law or not.

The decision of the U.S. Supreme Court won out, however.

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