Fletcher v. Peck

The citation for this case is 10 US [6 Cranch] 87. This is a landmark case from 1810 that dealt primarily with contracts. In 1795 Georgia gave land in what would become Alabama and Mississippi to private citizens who were land speculators. In a case of massive corruption, all but one of the men who voted for the land grant were found to have been bribed. The following year a new legislature repealed the act. John Peck purchased some of that land in 1800 and sold part of it to Robert Fletcher in 1803. “The first count of the declaration states that Peck, by his deed of bargain and sale dated the 14th of May, 1803, in consideration of 3,000 dollars, sold and conveyed to Fletcher, 15,000 acres of land lying in common and undivided in a tract.” [10 US 87] Fletcher then found out about the legislature’s repeal of the land sale and brought suit against Peck, claiming Peck had misrepresented his ownership of the land. A Federal court ruled in Peck’s favor, and Fletcher appealed to the Supreme Court.

The basic question before the Court was whether or not Georgia’s repeal of the land sale act violated the Constitution, specifically Article I, Section 10, Clause 1, which reads, “No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.” The Court needed to decide if Georgia’s repeal of the act impaired “the Obligation of Contracts.” According to Chief Justice John Marshall, “The lands in controversy vested absolutely in James Gunn [the man from whom John Peck purchased his land] and others, the original grantees, by the conveyance of the governor, made in pursuance of an act of assembly to which the legislature was fully competent. Being thus in full possession of the legal estate, they, for a valuable consideration, conveyed portions of the land to those who were willing to purchase. If the original transaction was infected with fraud, these purchasers did not participate in it, and had no notice of it. They were innocent. Yet the legislature of Georgia has involved them in the fate of the first parties to the transaction, and, if the act be valid, has annihilated their rights also.” [10 US 87, 132] The Chief Justice also wrote, “When, then, a law is in its nature a contract, when absolute rights have vested under that contract, a repeal of the law cannot devest those rights; and the act of annulling them, if legitimate, is rendered so by a power applicable to the case of every individual in the community.” [10 US 87, 135]

Now we come to the section that is important for our considerations: “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, 136] Marshall tells us, “Whatever respect might have been felt for the state sovereignties, it is not to be disguised that the framers of the constitution viewed, with some apprehension, the violent acts which might grow out of the feelings of the moment; and that the people of the United States, in adopting that instrument, have manifested a determination to shield themselves and their property from the effects of those sudden and strong passions to which men are exposed. The restrictions on the legislative power of the states are obviously founded in this sentiment; and the constitution of the United States contains what may be deemed a bill of rights for the people of each state.” [10 US 87, 137-138]

Georgia, then, like all the other states in the United States, is not an independent sovereign state. The National Government of the United States is supreme over Georgia and each of the other states. The effect of this is to knock out a major underpinning of the doctrine that a state could legally unilaterally secede from the United States.

Marshall upheld the Federal Court ruling, saying that the sale to Fletcher had been legal because Georgia’s attempt to repeal the land grant act had been an unconstitutional impairment of contract and had the effect of an ex post facto law.

 

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