United States v. Peters

The citation for this 1809 case is 9 US [5 Cranch] 115.

Gideon Olmstead had asked the Court to direct that Judge Richard Peters of the Pennsylvania District Federal Court direct that Pennsylvania enforce his judicial order in a previous case. Olmstead was a Connecticut sea captain who had been captured by the British during the Revolutionary War and impressed to serve on a British ship as part of its crew along with some members of his crew. They were able to overpower the British crew and take over the ship, and head it for New Jersey. They were intercepted by the Convention, a ship belonging to Pennsylvania, and brought to port in Philadelphia. The captain of the Convention claimed the ship as a prize, which angered the Connecticut sailors who had actually taken control of the ship. Pennsylvania’s admiralty court decided the prize money would be divided. The Connecticut men appealed the decision and it was reversed. Pennsylvania refused to honor that ruling. ”

Judge Peters cited the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution, which prevents the judicial power of the United States from extending to any lawsuit prosecuted against any of the individual states. Since Rittenhouse had been Pennsylvania’s treasurer, Peters ruled, the state could claim jurisdiction over the case. A more pressing concern to Judge Peters was that the state of Pennsylvania was threatening to use armed force to prevent the appeals court sentence from being carried out. Faced with the state militia on one side and a federal writ on the other, Judge Peters returned the mandamus to the U.S. Supreme Court and waited for a decision.” [http://law.jrank.org/pages/25262/United-States-v-Peters-Fate-Active.html]

In delivering the opinion of the Court, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote, “If the legislatures of the several States may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the Constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery, and the nation is deprived of the means of enforcing its laws by the instrumentality of its own tribunals. So fatal a result must be deprecated by all, and the people of Pennsylvania, not less than the citizens of every other State, must feel a deep interest in resisting principles so destructive of the union, and in averting consequences so fatal to themselves.” [9 US 115, 136] In other words, a state legislature has no authority at all to annul the judgment of a Federal Court, nor can it determine the jurisdiction of a Federal Court.

“The Court’s decision was extremely unpopular in Pennsylvania. As a matter of national law, however, the decision strengthened the power of federal courts in an era when the struggle over the relative rights of states and the U.S. government was still young.” [http://law.jrank.org/pages/25262/United-States-v-Peters-Fate-Active.html]

This is another decision that is completely incompatible with the idea that states are in any way sovereign bodies with the authority to unilaterally secede.




  1. And another example that belies the idea it was just southern states that had (appropriate) limits to their sovereignty enforced by the Federal government and the Constitution.

    BTW, did the CT boys get their fair share of the settlement? I know they were supposed to according to the ruling, but did they?

    1. The continuation of the events surrounding the case is interesting in itself, Bert. Judge Peters wrote out an order for the Connecticut men to be paid, but Pennsylvania’s governor put militia out to prevent the order from being enforced. After trying two or three times to deliver the order, the US Marshal was on the verge of ordering a Federal posse comitatus “to suppress the force and arms embodied, in opposition to the constitution” [Philadelphia Aurora, 13 Apr. 1809, quoted here] The Pennsylvania legislature supported activating the militia and appropriated funds to cover any expenses the state would incur. Meanwhile the Governor appealed to President James Madison, author of the 1798 Virginia Resolutions, to help him out. Madison said he was duty bound to enforce the ruling of the Supreme Court! “It is sufficient, in the actual posture of the case, to remark that the Executive of the U. States, is not only unauthorized to prevent the execution of a Decree sanctioned by the Supreme Court of the U. States, but is expressly enjoined by Statute, to carry into effect any such decree, where opposition may be made to it.” [Madison to Gov. Snyder, 13 Apr 1809] In his letter, Madison suggested the state legislature’s appropriation would be more than sufficient to cover the money owed to the Connecticut boys. The US Marshal, meanwhile, had gone around back, climbed fences, and snuck into the house through a window, and he had arrested one of the defendants in the case. A writ of habeas corpus was requested, and the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the arguments. He ruled that the Federal courts had jurisdiction and Pennsylvania had no business sticking its nose into the situation. The Governor paid the money and the defendant was released. But it wasn’t over yet! The general of the militia and several of his militiamen were then tried and found guilty of interfering with a Federal officer and sentenced to a fine and prison. A local newspaper editor, who had been highly critical of Pennsylvania’s actions, wrote to President Madison asking him to help, since the militia was only following the Governor’s orders. Madison pardoned them, and that finally ended the case. The Connecticut boys got their money and national supremacy was maintained. See the story here.

      1. Interesting. This made me smile: “Never did imbecility, combined with folly, and egged on by ignorance, exhibit any thing in which the serious and the ludicrous were so strongly intermixed,” wrote Duane of the Olmstead crisis.

        I hope that Governor’s political career was over or nearly so after such behavior.

        That’s the earliest I’ve seen mention of a “Republican” party. I guess there were state Republican parties before the national one was formed.

        1. Different Republicans. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: