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Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816)

Last Updated: 2006

The Supreme Court first considered the relationship between state and federal courts in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816). The framers of the U.S. Constitution had assumed the federal judiciary would declare state laws unconstitutional, but did not specify how that authority should be exercised. The Judiciary Act of 1789 resolved this uncertainty. Section 25 empowered the Supreme Court to review state court decisions that rejected claims based on federal law or declared federal laws unconstitutional. That provision, unobjectionable when passed, became a source of controversy during the first decades of the nineteenth century. Proponents of states’ rights questioned both the federal judicial power to declare state laws unconstitutional and the federal judicial power to reverse state court opinions.

A dispute over land provided the occasion for the Martin litigation and Virginia’s challenge to Section 25. Virginia seized the Fairfax estate in 1779. Subsequent litigation concerned whether that seizure was valid under the Treaty of Paris (1783), in which case the land belonged to persons who had purchased from Virginia, or whether the treaty governed disposition, in which case it belonged to persons who had purchased from Fairfax, a group that included Chief Justice John Marshall (Marshall recused himself, but appears to have written the briefs for the plaintiff, Denny Martin). The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals then ruled that the treaty did not determine the land title, but that ruling was reversed by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Virginia Court then ruled that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to decide that appeal, on the ground that Section 25 of the Judiciary Act was unconstitutional. The state court justices conceded federal power to declare state laws unconstitutional, but insisted that this power be exercised only directly, and that state sovereignty was violated by federal judicial review of state courts’ decisions.

Justice Joseph Story’s opinion rejected this version of dual sovereignty. His opinion for the court held that “the constitution not only contemplated, but meant to provide for cases within the scope of the judicial power of the United States, which might yet depend before state tribunals.” The alternative, prohibiting state judiciaries from resolving federal questions, would be far more destructive of federal-state relations than the mere exercise of federal appellate jurisdiction. Story further emphasized that federal appellate jurisdiction was necessary to ensure the uniformity of federal law throughout the United States and to prevent local biases from interfering with the constitutional authority of the federal government.

Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee has historically stood for the proposition that the Supreme Court is constitutionally empowered to declare state laws unconstitutional. This claim is implicit in Justice Story’s defense of federal judicial power to reverse state court judgments. Many consider that judicial power more vital than the judicial power to declare federal laws unconstitutional. Oliver Wendell Holmes declared, “I do not think the United States would come to an end if we lost our power to declare an Act of Congress void. I do think the Union would be imperiled if we could not make that declaration as to the laws of the several States.”

SEE ALSO: Cohens v. Virginia


G. Edward White, The Marshall Court and Cultural Change, 1815–1835, abridged ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).