The Supremacy of Federal Courts 1821

The Supremacy of Federal Courts 1821

The Supremacy of Federal Courts 1821
The Supremacy of Federal Courts 1821 – Chief Justice John Marshall—one of the most important figures in the history of the judiciary— depicted in an 1862 engraving by Alonzo Chappel.

Cohens v. Virginia, John Marshall (1755–1835)

In Cohens v. Virginia (1821), the United States Supreme Court confirmed its power to review any state court verdicts in situations arising under the federal Constitution or a federal statute.

The Judiciary Act of 1789 mandated that the Supreme Court review final judgments of any state’s highest court in cases “where the validity of a treaty or statute of the United States is called into question and the decision is against its validity” or “where the validity of a statute of any state is called into question on the ground that it is repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, and the decision is in favor of its validity.”

Fairfax’s Devisee v. Hunter’s Lessee (1813), a case concerning a property dispute, saw the Supreme Court overturn Virginia’s highest court and order it to file a judgment in favor of the party initially found against.

The Virginia court declined to follow the Supreme Court’s directive, claiming that “the Supreme Court of the United States’ appellate jurisdiction does not extend to this court.” As a result, the Supreme Court confirmed the legality of the Judiciary Act in Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816), therefore affirming its power to appellate jurisdiction.

Because he and his brother had committed to acquire part of the land, Chief Justice John Marshall did not participate in either judgment. As a result, the Cohens case gave him his first opportunity to speak out about appellate jurisdiction. In a Norfolk, Virginia court, two Cohen brothers were found guilty of selling District of Columbia lottery tickets in violation of Virginia law. Because the lottery tickets were approved by Congress, the Cohens argued they were exempt from state laws. Despite the fact that the United States Supreme Court ruled against them on the merits of the case, Marshall’s judgment reasserted the Supreme Court’s power over state courts and cast doubt on the credibility of state courts. “Judges in many states are dependent on the will of the legislature for office and remuneration,” Marshall said. We are less inclined to believe that [the Constitution] intended to leave these constitutional questions to tribunals where this independence may not exist in all cases where a state shall prosecute an individual who claims the protection of an act of Congress when we consider the importance that [the Constitution] places on judicial independence.”


The Power of Judicial Review (1803);

The Supremacy of Federal Law (1819);

Congressional Regulation of Commerce (1824).


The Supremacy of Federal Courts 1821

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)