Calder v. Bull

Facts

In a disagreement over a well, the reviewing court refused to acknowledge/enforce the will. The would-be recipients (defendants) appealed and had the judgment set aside.  Defendants were only able to do so because the Connecticut legislature passed a law authorizing the extension of the statute of limitations for appeal.  The statute of limitations’ extension applied retroactively to their case, thereby allowing them to appeal.  They successfully appealed and a new trial was granted upon setting aside the original probate court’s decision, whereupon the will was affirmed and enforced in favor of defendants.  Upon this verdict, Plaintiff, who was the original recipient of the will’s proceeds prior to defendants’ appeal, appealed the decision – which went to the Supreme Court.

Issue

Whether a federal court can nullify a state statute for violation of Article 1, Section 10 of the constitution, which prohibits the passage and application of retroactive laws.

Relevant Law

Article 1, Section 10:  “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.”

Holding/Reasoning

Majority Opinion – Justice Chase:  No, reversed.  The relevant action is a civil/private right, not a criminal right.  The constitution applies ex post facto restrictions on criminal rights, not civil/private rights.  “Vested property rights” can be subject to ex post facto state law.  The right of property, as found in natural law, is subject to the social contract found in state legislatures, among other social contracts.  The federal government should not impede upon these contracts, because they arise from natural law.

Concurrence

Justice Iredell agreed with the outcome, but disagreed with Justice Chase’s reasoning, writing that reliance on natural law as the test for whether to strike down state statute is incorrect.  The idea that “natural justice” can serve as a guiding light opens the court to methodology which substantially differs by each person’s interpretation and provides no fixed standard to judge a case.  The logic of the majority opinion, therefore, demonstrates that no court could possibly strike down legislation, because such legislation would be derived from social contract.  The Supreme Court clearly has and should have the ability to strike down unconstitutional legislation.  State legislatures may pass laws if they are exercised within “the powers delegated to them.”  If they exceed the powers delegated to them by the constitution, the court may invalidate their laws.

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