Today in 1821: SCOTUS rules it has jurisdiction over state criminal cases with federal law questions

March 3, 2016

Today in Legal HistoryIf a case involves any dispute of federal law, including the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review – even if the case originates in a state court.  That much is well settled.

But this was not always the case.  In fact, the Supreme Court has had to specifically rule that it has jurisdiction over such cases on multiple occasions.  We’ve already discussed one such case last year: 1816’s Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, which held that the U.S. Supreme Court is the nation’s ultimate authority on interpreting federal law, superseding all state court interpretations thereof.

Just five years later, on March 3, 1821, the Supreme Court issued a similar ruling in Cohens v. Virginia, reiterating its holding in Martin and further explicitly stating that this principle applies even in state criminal cases.

Cohens started as a criminal prosecution by the state of Virginia against the Cohen brothers, Philip and Mendes, for selling lottery tickets within the state.

Selling tickets was illegal in Virginia, though Congress had recently established a national lottery, the proceeds of which were to be used to support the District of Columbia.  The brothers were convicted and charged a fine of $100.

After Virginia’s highest court affirmed their convictions, the brothers appealed their conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that their conduct was protected by the act of Congress that created the national lottery.  The Supreme Court agreed to review the case – and Virginia argued that the Court didn’t even have jurisdiction because “criminal cases peculiarly belong to the domestic forum” from which they originated.  In short, Virginia argued that state courts are the final arbiters of any cases dealing with their own respective penal code.

The unanimous Court, led by Chief Justice John Marhsall, disagreed with Virginia on this point, instead holding that Article III of the Constitution gave the Court jurisdiction over “all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties…”  This included criminal cases originating in state courts.

Chief Justice Marshall’s opinion also opined on the unreliability of state courts to decide on matters relating to the Constitution and other federal laws, noting that “[i]n many States the judges are dependent for office and for salary on the will of the legislature. The [Constitution] furnishes no security against the universal adoption of this principle.”  Because of the importance that the Constitution “attaches to the independence of judges,” the Court was “less inclined to suppose that [the Constitution] can have 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.”

In other words, the Court simply didn’t trust important constitutional decisions to state courts.

And as a further insult to state courts, the ruling also dispelled all doubts about the broad reach of Article III’s Supremacy Clause, holding that “[t]he constitution and laws of a State, so far as they are repugnant to the constitution and laws of the United States, are absolutely void.”

Interestingly enough, the Cohen brothers lost their case nonetheless: their convictions were upheld by the Court.  The Court found that, although federal law is superior to all state law, since Congress never intended to authorize the sale of lottery tickets outside of the District of Columbia, federal law and Virginia state law did not conflict, and the convictions were likewise compliant with federal law.

Then again, the validity of the Cohen brothers’ convictions isn’t remembered as the central issue of the case; instead, it’s the rule that any case that involves a question of federal law – even a criminal case arising under state law – may be reviewed by the Supreme Court.

And today this is a bedrock rule beyond question.