Today in 1799: The Supreme Court first exercises original jurisdiction in a dispute between two states

August 9, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryThe vast majority of the cases that reach the Supreme Court do through its “appellate jurisdiction” – that is, the Supreme Court must agree to hear the case as an appeal from a ruling by a lower court.

This is distinguished from the Court’s “original jurisdiction,” in which it can hear cases directly, without having to wait for them to first make their way through the lower courts.

One such matter on which the Supreme Court has original jurisdiction – and possibly the most notable – is disputes between two different states.

The first time the Court exercised its jurisdiction on such an issue was in New York v. Connecticut, decided on August 9, 1799.

The 214 year old case’s rather complicated origins begin in the late 18th century, with Connecticut’s contention that, based on (among other things) its 1662 charter, it possessed a “sea to sea” grant to land on the American continent.

Previously, this claim had created conflict between the state and Pennsylvania, since Connecticut had asserted its jurisdiction over the Wyoming Valley and issued land titles to many of its citizens who settled there.

In 1782, a court ruled that the land did, in fact, belong to Pennsylvania, leading to one of the more significant conflicts in Pennamite-Yankee Wars (a series of conflicts in the area between settlers from Connecticut and those from Pennsylvania).

Although the state couldn’t make any further claims for land against Pennsylvania, some Connecticut citizens determined that, there yet remained a piece of New York’s territory that belonged to Connecticut under its “sea to sea” grant.

This piece of land, called the “Connecticut Gore,” was eight miles wide from north to south and 240 miles in length from east to west and was located on the border between Pennsylvania and New York.  Two enterprising individuals, Jeremiah Halsey and Andrew Ward, sought to purchase the Gore from Connecticut in May of 1794, a deal with which the state was initially doubtful.

However, when the state was running short on funds for the completion of its new state house (the building where the state legislature meets), the pair of individuals offered to complete the project in exchange for ownership of the Connecticut Gore.

The state legislature authorized the transaction the following spring, and Halsey established the Connecticut Gore Land Company.

The New York legislature did not take kindly to this action, and in February 1796, it took action directing the state attorney general to sue individuals holding Connecticut titles to the land, and to defend against suits filed by such individuals.

Before New York could sue anyone, however, the Connecticut Gore Land Company started two ejectment suits of its own seeking to remove New Yorkers living on the Gore.

The shrewd procedural move in bringing the suits laid the foundation for the rest of the legal dispute: the company wanted the case to be heard in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut – so that a jury composed of Connecticut citizens would be deciding the case.

To this end, the summonses described the defendants living in the Gore as Connecticut citizens.  To preserve the diversity requirement to keep the case in federal court, the company named two of its owners who were Massachusetts citizens as the plaintiffs.

After some procedural delays, the court ordered that a jury be summoned to settle the issue. 

However, after the jurors were assembled, the defendants (now being fully funded by the state of New York) raised a challenge to the body of jurors, claiming that the federal marshals that assembled the jury panel were biased (both were Connecticut citizens, and the one who actually assembled the jury panel was one of the owners of the Connecticut Gore Land Company).  The plaintiffs objected to this challenge, and the court heard arguments over it.

The argument turned into a dispute over the proper forum and whether a jury panel from either state would be fair and impartial.  In addition, the defendants raised the possibility of the case being removed to the Supreme Court.

The court ended up ruling to disqualify the jury panel.  The following term, the court again assembled a jury panel, and the New York defendants again challenged it (since they were all, once again, from Connecticut).  The court ruled against the defendants.

In August 1798, the defendants next tried their luck at the Supreme Court, moving the Court to issue an order to show cause.  The Court granted the motion, ordering the plaintiffs to show why a jury panel should not be assembled from a district other than the Districts of New York and Connecticut.

After two days of argument on the issue, during which the New York defendants argued that, since this was actually a dispute between two states, the Supreme Court had original jurisdiction to hear the case under the Judiciary Act of 1789.

The Court ruled against the defendants, finding that the suits were, indeed, between individuals and not states.  However, an opinion by Justice Bushrod Washington stated that, while the current cases’ jurisdictional and procedural circumstances would make removal to the Supreme Court improper, New York may be able to file a bill of equity against Connecticut in the Supreme Court.

New York got the hint, and subsequently filed a bill in equity against Connecticut and the Connecticut plaintiffs for an injunction to stay the ejectment proceedings.

And now we’re finally back to the New York v. Connecticut ruling mentioned at the beginning of this post.

The ruling held that New York wasn’t a party to the ejectment suits that they were attempting to enjoin, and thus had no interest in the outcome of the action – despite the fact that New York was financing the entire legal defense for both cases and the fact that Connecticut was trying to claim jurisdiction over a large tract of land through the middle of New York.

New York and Connecticut eventually did come to an agreement on the strip of land in dispute outside of the courts, and obviously not one that left Connecticut with ownership of a 240 mile wide swath of ownership across New York.

Ironically, even though New York v. Connecticut was the first case in which the Court exercised its original jurisdiction under Article III of the Constitution to hear controversies between two states, it effectively ruled that there was no controversy between two states.