Martin v. Hunter's Lessee 1 Wheaton 304 (1816)

Author:Leonard W. Levy

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Appomattox ultimately settled the issue that bottomed this case: were the states or was the nation supreme? As a matter of law, the opinion of the Supreme Court supplied the definitive answer, but law cannot settle a conflict between competing governments unless they agree to abide by the decision of a tribunal they recognize as having JURISDICTION to decide. Whether such a tribunal existed was the very issue in this case; more precisely the question was whether the Supreme Court's APPELLATE JURISDICTION extended to the state courts. In 1810 Virginia had supported the Court against state sovereignty advocates. Pennsylvania's legislature had resolved that "no provision is made in the Constitution for determining disputes between the general and state governments by an impartial tribunal." To that Virginia replied that the Constitution provides such a tribunal, "the Supreme Court, more eminently qualified ? to decide the disputes aforesaid in an enlightened and impartial manner, than any other tribunal which could be erected." (See UNITED STATES V. JUDGE PETERS.) The events connected with the Martin case persuaded Virginia to reverse its position. The highest court of the state, the Virginia Court of Appeals, defied the Supreme Court, subverted the JUDICIAL POWER OF THE UNITED STATES as defined by Article III of the Constitution, circumvented the SUPREMACY CLAUSE (Article VI), and held unconstitutional a major act of Congress?all for the purpose of repudiating JUDICIAL REVIEW, or the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction over state courts and power to declare state acts void.

The Martin case arose out of a complicated and protracted legal struggle over land titles. Lord Fairfax died in 1781, bequeathing valuable tracts of his property in Virginia's Northern Neck to his nephew, Denny Martin, a British subject residing in England. During the Revolution Virginia had confiscated Loyalist estates and by an act of 1779, which prohibited alien enemies from holding land, declared the escheat, or reversion to the state, of estates then owned by British subjects. That act of 1779 did not apply to the estates of Lord Fairfax, who had been a Virginia citizen. The Treaty of Peace with Great Britain in 1783, calling for the restitution of all confiscated estates and prohibiting further confiscations, strengthened Martin's claim under the will of his uncle. In 1785, however, Virginia had extended its escheat law of 1779 to the Northern Neck, and four years later had granted some of those lands to one David Hunter. JAY ' STREATY of 1794, which protected the American property of British subjects, also buttressed Martin's claims. By then a Virginia district court, which included Judge ST. GEORGE TUCKER, decided in Martin's favor; Hunter appealed to the state's high court. JOHN MARSHALL, who had represented Martin, and James Marshall, his brother, joined a syndicate that arranged to purchase the Northern Neck lands. In 1796 the state legislature offered a compromise, which the Marshall syndicate accepted: the Fairfax devisees relinquished claim to the undeveloped lands of the Northern Neck in return for the state's recognition of their claim to Fairfax's manor lands. The Marshall syndicate accepted the compromise, thereby seeming to secure Hunter's claim, yet thereafter completed their purchase. In 1806, Martin's

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heir conveyed the lands to the syndicate, and in 1808 he appealed to the Court of Appeals, which decided in favor of Hunter two years later.

The Martin-Marshall interests, relying on the Treaty of 1783 and Jay's Treaty, took the case to the Supreme Court on a WRIT OF ERROR under section 25 of the JUDICIARY ACT OF...

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