Martin v. Hunter's Lessee

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Martin v. Hunter's Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816), was a landmark United States Supreme Court case decided on March 20, 1816. It was the first case to assert ultimate Supreme Court authority over state courts in matters of federal law.



During the American Revolution, the state of Virginia enacted legislation that allowed it to confiscate Loyalists' property. Here, the original suit was an action of ejectment brought in Virginia state court for the recovery of land in the state known as the Northern Neck Proprietary. A declaration in ejectment was served in April, 1791 on the tenants in possession of the land. Denny Fairfax (late Denny Martin) was a British subject who held the land under the devise of Thomas Lord Fairfax. Denny Martin was admitted to defend the suit and plead the general issue upon the usual terms of confessing lease, entry, and ouster. Martin agreed to assert only claim to the title. The facts being settled in the form of a case agreed to be taken and considered as a special verdict, the court, on consideration thereof, gave judgment in favor of the defendant in ejectment on April 24, 1794. From that judgment the plaintiff in ejectment (now defendant in error) appealed to the court of appeals.

The Virginia state supreme court upheld the confiscation. It did not do so on the grounds that Virginia law was superior to U.S. treaties, but rather because it argued that its own interpretation of the treaty revealed that the treaty did not, in fact, cover the dispute. On review in Fairfax's Devisee v. Hunter's Lessee, 11 U.S. 603 (1813), the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with this conclusion, ruling that the treaty did in fact cover the dispute, and remanded the case back to the Virginia Supreme Court, but the Virginia court then argued that the U.S. Supreme Court did not have authority over cases originating in state court:

The Court is unanimously of opinion, that the appellate power of the Supreme Court of the United States does not extend to this Court, under a sound construction of the Constitution of the United States; that so much of the 25th section of the act of Congress to establish the judicial courts of the United States, as extends the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to this Court, is not in pursuance of the Constitution of the United States; that the writ of error in this cause was improvidently allowed under the authority of that act; that the proceedings thereon in the Supreme Court were coram non judice in relation to this Court, and that obedience to its mandate be declined by the Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the state court's decision on appeal, ruling that questions of federal law were within its jurisdiction, and thereby establishing its own supremacy in matters of constitutional interpretation.

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