Fletcher v. Peck

The citation for this case is 10 US [6 Cranch] 87.

In 1794 a group of four land speculation companies engaged in a massive bribe of almost all the members of the Georgia legislature, two US senators, and several state and federal judges in order to have a sale of 35 million acres in the Yazoo area of what would become Alabama and Mississippi to those companies for only $500,000. A new legislature came into power in 1796 and rescinded the legislation that allowed the sale of the land, which meant all property rights under the sale were no longer in force. In the time between the sale and the rescinded legislation, the companies sold off the land to investors. One of those investors, Robert Fletcher, brought suit against one of the sellers, John Peck.

Georgia took a highly state rights stance against the suit. “The more-radical Republicans defended Georgia’s actions in the language of popular sovereignty and states’ rights. For them, such popular constitutional review rested on even firmer footing than did judicial review. The rescinding statute was not a mere legislative act. Rather, it represented the will of the people themselves, who had deputized their representatives to act in a special constitutional capacity in response to exigent circumstances. Local resolutions addressed to a state constitutional convention, declarations of grand juries throughout the state, and popular meetings out of doors had specially ‘invest[ed] this Legislature with conventional powers’; that is, with the powers of the people themselves, as if assembled in convention. The people of Georgia had thus exploited the wide repertoire of ‘constitutional’ options in the early nation to put their sovereignty into practice.10 In so doing, the people and their delegates in the legislature reviewed the original Act and declared the land grant void — without effect from the moment of its supposed enactment — on the basis of the fraud and other constitutional defects.” [Gerald Leonard, “Fletcher v. Peck and Constitutional Development in the Early United States,” University of California Davis Law Review, Vol 47 (2014):1843, 1845-1846]

The case was decided in 1810 with Chief Justice John Marshall writing the majority opinion. “The only question before the Court, Marshall said, was title; to remedy political corruption, citizens should resort to the polls, not to the courts. Having sidestepped the corruption issue, Marshall deftly took up the constitutional issues. Could legislatures deprive bona fide investors of the lands they had acquired under the corrupt grant? Each buyer, said Marshall, had procured ‘a title good at law, he is innocent, whatever may be the guilt of others, and equity will not subject him to the penalties attached to that guilt. All titles would be insecure, and the intercourse between man and man would be very seriously obstructed, if this principle be overturned.’ Marshall held the rescinding act an unconstitutional abridgment of the obligation of lawful contracts under the Contract Clause. Equally important, he tied the rights protected by that clause to the natural law doctrine of vested rights: when an agreement was ‘in its nature a contract, when absolute rights have vested under that contract, a repeal of the law cannot divest those rights.’ He concluded that ‘either by principles which are common to our free institutions, or by the particular provisions of the constitution of the United States’ a state legislature could not enact legislation that impaired contracts or disturbed land titles supposedly acquired in good faith.” [Sandra f. VanBurkleo, “Fletcher v. Peck,” in Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Guide to United States Supreme Court Decisions, p. 93]

The part of the decision of greatest interest to us, though, comes when Chief Justice Marshall is discussing whether the legislature had the power to annihilate the land titles of the investors. He wrote, “It may well be doubted whether the nature of society and of government does not prescribe some limits to the legislative power; and, if any be prescribed, where are they to be found if the property of an individual, fairly and honestly acquired, may be seized without compensation? To the Legislature all legislative power is granted, but the question whether the act of transferring the property of an individual to the public be in the nature of the legislative power is well worthy of serious reflection. It is the peculiar province of the legislature to prescribe general rules for the government of society; the application of those rules to individuals in society would seem to be the duty of other departments. How far the power of giving the law may involve every other power, in cases where the Constitution is silent, never has been, and perhaps never can be, definitely stated. The validity of this rescinding act, then, might well be doubted, were Georgia a single sovereign power. But Georgia cannot be viewed as a single, unconnected, sovereign power, on whose legislature no other restrictions are imposed than may be found in its own Constitution. She is a part of a large empire; she is a member of the American Union; and that Union has a Constitution the supremacy of which all acknowledge, and which imposes limits to the legislatures of the several States which none claim a right to pass. The Constitution of the United States declares that no State shall pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.” [10 US 87, 135-136]

In other words, Georgia is not a sovereign entity which is free to ignore the US Constitution and US Laws at its own convenience, but being part of the United States it must obey the Constitution and US Laws. This ruling is completely and absolutely opposed to the idea that a state could unilaterally secede from the United States. A state, by this ruling, has no authority to declare the US Constitution and US Laws do not apply to it.

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