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Fletcher v. Peck (1810)

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Central Question

Could federal courts strike down state laws that violated the U.S. Constitution?

Historical Context

In the early twentieth century, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., asserted that, while the judiciary’s power to strike down acts of Congress was not essential to the national government, “the Union would be imperiled if we could not make that declaration as to the laws of the several states.” Fletcher v. Peck (1810) was the first time the Supreme Court asserted that important power, striking down a statute passed by the Georgia legislature. In holding that the state law violated the Contracts Clause of the Constitution, the Court also embraced a broad interpretation of that provision, protecting business interests from some forms of state interference.

Legal Debates before Fletcher

While the Constitution contemplated that the courts might hear cases “arising under” its provisions, it did not explicitly mention whether federal judges had the power to invalidate state statutes. During the Constitution’s ratification, some prominent figures argued that it implicitly required courts to strike down unconstitutional legislation. In Federalist no. 78, for example, Alexander Hamilton asserted that “[n]o legislative act . . . contrary to the constitution can be valid” and defended “the right of the courts to pronounce legislative acts void[.]” In 1788, future Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth assured delegates at Connecticut’s ratifying convention (a body formed to debate the adoption of the Constitution) that “upright, independent judges” would guard the Constitution by striking down laws violating its protections. Future Chief Justice John Marshall, who would later write the Court’s opinion in Fletcher, made similar statements to the Virginia convention. Some critics of the new Constitution also suggested that judges would invalidate state and federal legislation, though they saw this as a flaw in the document’s design. The Antifederalist “Brutus,” for example, referred to this authority as an “uncontroulable power[.]”

In Marbury v. Madison (1803), the Supreme Court invalidated part of a federal law for the first time. While it may seem to follow logically from that result that the federal courts had the power to strike down state legislation, this was not entirely clear at the time. Most of the Constitutional restrictions on government power only applied to the federal government, in part because many worried about the potential for the centralized federal government to impinge on the powers of the states, many of whose governments were older and more democratic than the federal system.

The Case

Fletcher arose from a complex and corrupt land deal. The state of Georgia claimed sovereignty over a massive area of land in modern-day Alabama and Mississippi known as “Yazoo.” Although native tribes also claimed sovereignty over much of the land, and had settled parts of it before Georgia’s statehood, property speculators wanted to invest in the land and sell it to European-American settlers and businesses. In 1795, the state legislature sold 35 million acres of land in the region to private speculators at a very low price.

Shortly after the state sold the lands, it was discovered that most of the legislators voting for the land-grant law had been bribed or owned stakes in the businesses purchasing the property. After several lawmakers were voted out of office in response to these revelations of corruption, the legislature declared the earlier grants void. This declaration was different from most legislative acts because it did not merely repeal the earlier sales; it declared that they had—at least in legal terms—never happened. Indeed, the new legislators ordered the original law publicly burned to emphasize this point. However, this second law arguably implicated one of the few constitutional restrictions on state power prior to the Civil War, as the Contracts Clause of Article I, section 10 prohibited states from passing any “law impairing the obligation of contracts[.]”

Several years after the legislature revoked the land grants, John Peck, a speculator from Massachusetts, purchased some of the land in question and subsequently sold it to Robert Fletcher, a colleague from New Hampshire. Fletcher sued Peck for breach of contract, alleging that Peck had falsely represented that he had good title to the land. Peck defended the suit by arguing that the Georgia legislature had violated the Contracts Clause by improperly interfering with the original land grant contract. Since the law was invalid, he claimed, he had held good title to the land and had every right to sell it to Fletcher. In fact, both parties likely wanted the titles ruled valid so they could profit from the transaction and, perhaps, defeat other native claims to Yazoo lands.

The parties voluntarily postponed their case in the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts for several years while Congress debated a plan to compensate speculators whose land grants had been revoked. After nothing came of this proposal, however, they resumed the suit, which the court decided in Peck’s favor, ruling that the Georgia legislature’s attempt to void the original land sales violated the Contracts Clause. Although this was the result for which Fletcher had likely hoped, he appealed, apparently believing that a Supreme Court decision on the matter would carry more weight and apply to claims on the Yazoo lands made by speculators nationwide (much of the property originally included in the corrupt land grants had been sold to out-of-state speculators).

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

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The parties were represented before the Supreme Court by two of the great lawyers of the early republic. Fletcher’s attorney was Luther Martin, who had been one of the leading Antifederalists during ratification debates over the Constitution. Despite his reputation as a talented lawyer and political speaker, however, Martin had succumbed to alcoholism by the time he argued the case. Indeed, Chief Justice Marshall had to postpone proceedings at one point to allow Martin to sober up. Peck was represented by Joseph Story, the brilliant young lawyer from Massachusetts who would soon become the youngest Supreme Court justice in history and is now widely regarded as one of the primary shapers of constitutional law before the Civil War.

Although Marshall initially expressed some reluctance to hear what appeared to be a “feigned” case, he wrote an opinion for the Court that ultimately delivered the result for which the speculators had likely hoped. The initial land grants, Marshall reasoned, were contracts between the state and the purchasers and the legislature could not invalidate those contracts without impairing their obligations in a manner that violated the Contracts Clause. While he acknowledged the concern that the original legislative process had been infected by bribery, Marshall reasoned that courts should be wary of interpreting the motives of lawmakers. Moreover, he suggested that it would be unfair to punish innocent purchasers of the land for the corruption of legislators. Marshall also reasoned that “general principles” of law prohibited legislatures from passing retroactive laws. Though he did not fully explain the sources of these principles, many scholars assume that Marshall referred to “natural law,” a body of inherent moral principles. He compared the Georgia statute to an ex post facto law, which retroactively punishes someone for an act that was not a crime when he committed it. Such laws, he reasoned, led to governmental instability and were unfair to citizens, who could not rely on the law as it stands.

Justice William Johnson, Jr., wrote a separate concurring opinion that, while reaching the same result as Marshall, argued that the Georgia legislature had not violated the Contracts Clause. Nevertheless, he reasoned that the law voiding the land grants had violated the general principles of law Marshall had laid out. Johnson also lamented the apparently collusive nature of the lawsuit, but determined (based on Martin’s and Story’s eminent reputations) that the suit had not been brought for illegitimate purposes.

Aftermath and Legacy

Although the Court’s decision rendered Georgia’s attempt to void the initial land grants unconstitutional, it did not resolve the complex issues of disputed ownership or set the appropriate level of compensation for dispossessed landowners in Yazoo. Indeed, those issues were not truly resolved until Congress passed legislation compensating speculators in 1814. Nevertheless, two of the central legal principles the Court established in Fletcher v. Peck remain important to this day. The federal courts have used the power to strike down unconstitutional state legislation on several occasions. The Court’s desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and its decision protecting a woman’s right to end her pregnancy in Roe v. Wade (1973) are prominent examples. Similarly, the Court’s broad interpretation of the Contracts Clause played an important part in the development of its corporate jurisprudence. In Dartmouth College v. Woodward (1819), for example, the Court determined that corporate charters are a form of contract with the state and that states could not alter the terms of the charter at will.

Discussion Questions

  • The modern federal courts have largely disavowed the notion that they can strike down laws for violating natural law or general principles of law and instead only do so if the law in question violates some specific part of a superseding statute or constitution. Why might this be? Are there special dangers in relying on something other than the text of a statute or constitution to invalidate a law?
  • In his opinion for the Court (below), Chief justice Marshall reasoned that the courts should avoid inquiring into legislators’ motivations. Why? Might there be times when it is necessary for a court to delve beyond the language of a law to determine why it was passed?