Article 3, Section 2, Clause 1
Eakins v. Raub12 Serg. & Rawle 330 Pa. 1825
Gibson, J. . . . It seems to me there is a plain difference, hitherto unnoticed, between acts that are repugnant to the constitution of the particular state, and acts that are repugnant to the constitution of the United States; my opinion being, that the judiciary is bound to execute the former, but not the latter. I shall hereafter attempt to explain this difference, by pointing out the particular provisions in the constitution of the United States on which it depends. I am aware, that a right to declare all unconstitutional acts void, without distinction as to either constitution, is generally held as a professional dogma; but, I apprehend rather as a matter of faith than of reason. I admit that I once embraced the same doctrine, but without examination, and I shall therefore state the arguments that impelled me to abandon it, with great respect for those by whom it is still maintained. But I may premise, that it is not a little remarkable, that although the right in question has all along been claimed by the judiciary, no judge has ventured to discuss it, except Chief Justice Marshall, (in Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch, 176,) and if the argument of a jurist so distinguished for the strength of his ratiocinative powers to be found inconclusive, it may fairly be set down to the weakness of the position which he attempts to defend. Si Pergama dextra defendi potuit, etiam hac defensa fuisset. In saying this, I do not overlook the opinion of Judge Patterson, in Vanhorne v. Dorrance, (2 Dall. 307,) which abounds with beautiful figures in illustration of his doctrine; but, without intending disrespect, I submit that metaphorical illustration is one thing and argument another. Now, in questions of this sort, precedents ought to go for absolutely nothing. The constitution is a collection of fundamental laws, not to be departed from in practice nor altered by judicial decision, and in the construction of it, nothing would be so alarming as the doctrine of communis error, which offers a ready justification for every usurpation that has not been resisted in limine. Instead, therefore, of resting on the fact, that the right in question has universally been assumed by the American courts, the judge who asserts it ought to be prepared to maintain it on the principles of the constitution.
I begin, then, by observing that in this country, the powers of the judiciary are divisible into those that are POLITICAL and those that are purely CIVIL. Every power by which one organ of the government is enabled to control another, or to exert an influence over its acts, is a political power. The political powers of the judiciary are extraordinary and adventitious; such, for instance, as are derived from certain peculiar provisions in the constitution of the United States, of which hereafter: and they are derived, by direct grant, from the common fountain of all political power. On the other hand, its civil, are its ordinary and appropriate powers; being part of its essence, and existing independently of any supposed grant in the constitution. But where the government exists by virtue of a written constitution, the judiciary does not necessarily derive from that circumstance, any other than its ordinary and appropriate powers. Our judiciary is constructed on the principles of the common law, which enters so essentially into the composition of our social institutions as to be inseparable from them, and to be in fact, the basis of the whole scheme of our civil and political liberty. In adopting any organ or instrument of the common law, we take it with just such powers and capacities as were incident to it at the common law, except where these are expressly, or by necessary implication, abridged or enlarged in the act of adoption; and, that such act is a written instrument, cannot vary its consequences or construction. In the absence of special provision to the contrary, sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other officers whose offices are established in the constitution, exercise no other powers here, than what similar officers do in England; and trial by jury would have been according to the course of the common law, without any declaration to that effect in the constitution. Now, what are the powers of the judiciary at the common law? They are those that necessarily arise out of its immediate business; and they are therefore commensurate only with the judicial execution of the municipal law, or, in other words, with the administration of distributive justice, without extending to any thing of a political cast whatever. Dr. Paley, as able a man as ever wrote on those subjects on which he professed to treat, seems to have considered the judiciary as a part of the executive, and judging from its essence, subordinate to the legislature, which he viewed as the depository of the whole sovereignty of the state. With us, although the legislature be the depository of only so much of the sovereignty as the people have thought fit to impart, it is nevertheless sovereign within the limit of its powers, and may relatively claim the same pre-eminence here that it may claim elsewhere. It will be conceded, then that the ordinary and essential powers of the judiciary do not extend to the annulling of an act of the legislature. Nor can the inference be drawn from this, be evaded by saying that in England the constitution, resting in principles consecrated by time, and not in an actual written compact, and being subject to alteration by the very act of the legislature, there is consequently no separate and distinct criterion by which the question of constitutionality may be determined; for it does not follow, that because we have such a criterion, the application of it belongs to the judiciary. I take it, therefore, that the power in question does not necessarily arise from the judiciary being established by a written constitution, but that this organ can claim on account of that circumstance, no powers that do not belong to it at the common law; and that, whatever may have been the cause of the limitation of its jurisdiction originally, it can exercise no power of supervision over the legislature, without producing a direct authority for it in the constitution, either in terms or by irresistible implication from the nature of the government: without which the power must be considered as reserved, along with the other ungranted portions of the sovereignty for the immediate use of the people.
The constitution of Pennsylvania contains no express grant of political powers to the judiciary. But, to establish a grant by implication, the constitution is said to be a law of superior obligation; and, consequently, that if it were to come into collision with an act of the legislature, the latter would have to give way. This is conceded. But it is a fallacy, to suppose that they can come into collision before the judiciary. What is a constitution? It is an act of extraordinary legislation, by which the people establish the structure and mechanism of their governemnt; and in which they prescribe fundamental rules to regulate the motion of the several parts. What is a statute? It is an act of ordinary legislation, by the appropriate organ of the government; the provisions of which are to be executed by the executive or judiciary, or by officers subordinate to them. The constitution, then, contains no practical rules for the administration of distributive justice, with which alone the judiciary has to do; these being furnished in acts of ordinary legislation, by that organ of the government, which, in this respect, is exclusively the representative of the people; and it is generally true, that the provisions of a constitution are to be carried into effect immediately by the legislature, and only mediately, if at all, by the judiciary. In what respect is the constitution of Pennsylvania inconsistent with this principle? Only, perhaps in one particular provision, to regulate the style of process, and establish an appropriate form of conclusion in criminal prosecutions: in this alone the constitution furnishes a rule for the judiciary, and this the legislature cannot alter, because it cannot alter the constitution. In all other cases, if the act of assembly supposed to be unconstitutional, were laid out of the question, there would remain no rule to determine the point in controversy in the cause, but the statute or common law, as it existed before the act of assembly was passed; and the constitution and act of assembly therefore do not furnish conflicting rules applicable to the point before the court; nor is it at all necessary, that the one or the other of them should give way.
The constitution and the right of the legislature to pass the act, may be in collision. But is that a legitimate subject for judicial determination? If it be, the judiciary must be a peculiar organ, to revise the proceedings of the legislature, and to correct its mistakes; and in what part of the constitution are we to look for this proud pre-eminence? Viewing the matter in the opposite direction, what would be thought of an act of assembly in which it should be declared that the Supreme Court had, in a particular case, put a wrong construction on the constitution of the United States, and that the judgment should therefore be reversed? It would doubtless be thought a usurpation of judicial power. But it is by no means clear, that to declare a law void which has been enacted according to the forms prescribed in the constitution, is not a usurpation of legislative power. It is an act of sovereignty; and sovereignty and legislative power are said by Sir William Blackstone to be convertible terms. It is the business of the judiciary to interpret the laws, not scan the authority of the lawgiver; and without the latter, it cannot take cognizance of a collision between a law and the constitution. So that to affirm that the judiciary has a right to judge of the existence of such collision, is to take for granted the very thing to be proved. And, that a very cogent argument may be made in this way, I am not disposed to deny; for no conclusions are so strong as those that are drawn from the petitio principii.
But it has been said to be emphatically the business of the judiciary, to ascertain and pronounce what the law is; and that this necessarily involves a consideration of the constitution. It does so: but how far? If the judiciary will inquire into any thing beside the form of enactment, where shall it stop? There must be some point of limitation to such an inquiry; for no one will pretend, that a judge would be justifiable in calling for the election returns, or scrutinizing the qualifications of those who composed the legislature.
It is next supposed, that as the members of the legislature have no inherent right of legislation, but derive their authority from the people, no law can be valid where authority to pass it, is either simply not given or positively withheld: thus treating the members as the agents of the people, and the constitution as a letter of attorney containing their authority and bounding their sphere of action, and the consequence deduced being, that acts not warranted by the constitution are not the acts of the people, but of those that do them; and that they are therefore ipso facto void. The concluding inference is, in military phrase, the key of the position, and if it be tenable, it will decide the controversy; for a law ipso facto void, is absolutely a non entity. But it is putting the argument on bold ground to say, that a high public functionary shall challenge no more respect than is due to a private individual; and that its acts, although presenting themselves under sanctions derived from a strict observance of the form of enactment prescribed in the constitution, are to be rejected as ipso facto void for excess of authority. The constitution is not to be expounded like a deed, but by principles of interpretation much more liberal; as was declared by this court, in The Farmers and Mechanics' Bank v. Smith, (3 Serg. & Rawle, 63.) But, in the case of a public functionary, even according to common law maxims, omnia presumi debeant rite et solemniter esse acta. The benefit of this maxim cannot be refused to the legislature by those who advocate the other side, inasmuch as it is the foundation of their own hypothesis; for all respect is demanded for the acts of the judiciary. For instance: let it be supposed that the power to declare a law unconstitutional has been exercised. What is to be done? The legislature must acquiesce, although it may think the construction of the judiciary wrong. But why must it acquiesce? Only because it is bound to pay that respect to every other organ of the government, which it has a right to exact from each of them in turn. This is the argument. But it will not be pretended, that the legislature has not at least an equal right with the judiciary to put a construction on the constitution; nor that either of them is infallible; nor that either ought to be required to surrender its judgment to the other. Suppose, then, they differ in opinion as to the constitutionality of a particular law; if the organ whose business it first is to decide on the subject, is not to have its judgment treated with respect, what shall prevent it from securing the preponderance of its opinion by the strong arm of power? It is in vain to say, the legislature would be the aggressor in this; and that no argument in favour of its authority can be drawn from an abuse of its power. Granting this, yet it is fair to infer, that the framers of the constitution never intended to force the judges either to become martyrs or to flinch from their duty; or to interpose a check that would produce no other effect than an intestine war. Such things have occurred in other states, and would necessarily occur in this, under circumstances of strong excitement in the popular branch. The judges would be legislated out of office, if the majority requisite to a direct removal by impeachment, or the legislative address, could not be had; and this check, instead of producing the salutary effect expected from it, would rend the government in pieces. But suppose that a struggle would not produce consequences so disastrous, still the soundness of any construction which would bring one organ of the government into collision with another, is to be more than suspected; for where collision occurs, it is evident the machine is working in a way the framers of it did not intend. But what I want more immediately to press on the attention, is, the necessity of yielding to the acts of the legislature the same respect that is claimed for the acts of the judiciary. Repugnance to the constitution is not always self evident; for questions involving the consideration of its existence, require for their solution the most vigorous exertion of the higher faculties of the mind, and conflicts will be inevitable, if any branch is to apply the constitution after its own fashion to the acts of all the others. I take it, then, the legislature is entitled to all the deference that is due to the judiciary; that its acts are in no case to be treated as ipso facto void, except where they would produce a revolution in the government; and that, to avoid them, requires the act of some tribunal competent under the constitution, (if any such there be,) to pass on their validity. All that remains, therefore, is to inquire whether the judiciary or the people are that tribunal.
Now, as the judiciary is not expressly constituted for that purpose, it must derive whatever authority of the sort it may possess, from the reasonableness and fitness of the thing. But, in theory, all the organs of the government are of equal capacity; or, if not equal, each must be supposed to have superior capacity only for those things which peculiarly belong to it; and, as legislation peculiarly involves the consideration of those limitations which are put on the law-making power, and the interpretation of the laws when made, involves only the construction of the laws themselves, it follows that the construction of the constitution in this particular belongs to the legislature, which ought therefore to be taken to have superior capacity to judge of the constitutionality of its own acts. But suppose all to be of equal capacity in every respect, why should one exercise a controlling power over the rest? That the judiciary is of superior rank, has never been pretended, although it has been said to be co-ordinate. It is not easy, however, to comprehend how the power which gives law to all the rest, can be of no more than equal rank with one which receives it, and is answerable to the former for the observance of its statutes. Legislation is essentially an act of sovereign power; but the execution of the laws by instruments that are governed by prescribed rules and exercise no power of volition, is essentially otherwise. The very definition of law, which is said to be "a rule of civil conduct prescribed by the supreme power in the state," shows the intrinsic superiority of the legislature. It may be said, the power of the legislature, also, is limited by prescribed rules. It is so. But it is, nevertheless, the power of the people, and sovereign as far as it extends. It cannot be said, that the judiciary is co-ordinate merely because it is established by the constitution. If that were sufficient, sheriffs, registers of wills, and recorders of deeds, would be so too. Within the pale of their authority, the acts of these officers will have the power of the people for their support; but no one will pretend, they are of equal dignity with the acts of the legislature. Inequality of rank arises not from the manner in which the organ has been constituted, but from its essence and the nature of its functions; and the legislative organ is superior to every other, inasmuch as the power to will and to command, is essentially superior to the power to act and to obey. It does not follow then, that every organ created by special provision in the constitution, is of equal rank. Both the executive, strictly as such, and the judiciary are subordinate; and an act of superior power exercised by an inferior ought, one would think, to rest on something more solid than implication.
It may be alleged, that no such power is claimed, and that the judiciary does no positive act, but merely refuses to be instrumental in giving effect to an unconstitutional law. This is nothing more than a repetition in a different form of the argument,--that an unconstitutional law is ipso facto void; for a refusal to act under the law, must be founded on a right in each branch to judge of the acts of all the others, before it is bound to exercise its functions to give those acts effect. No such right is recognised in the different branches of the national government, except the judiciary, (and that, too, on account of the peculiar provisions of the constitution,) for it is now universally held, whatever doubts may have once existed, that congress is bound to provide for carrying a treaty into effect, although it may disapprove of the exercise of the treaty-making power in the particular instance. A government constructed on any other principle, would be in perpetual danger of standing still; for the right to decide on the constitutionality of the laws, would not be peculiar to the judiciary, but would equally reside in the person of every officer whose agency might be necessary to carry them into execution.
Every one knows how seldom men think exactly alike on ordinary subjects; and a government constructed on the principle of assent by all its parts, would be inadequate to the most simple operations. The notion of a complication of counter checks has been carried to an extent in theory, of which the framers of the constitution never dreamt. When the entire sovereignty was separated into its elementary parts, and distributed to the appropriate branches, all things incident to the exercise of its powers were committed to each branch exclusively. The negative which each part of the legislature may exercise, in regard to the acts of the other, was thought sufficient to prevent material infractions of the restraints which were put on the power of the whole; for, had it been intended to interpose the judiciary as an additional barrier, the matter would surely not have been left in doubt. The judges would not have been left to stand on the insecure and ever shifting ground of public opinion as to constructive powers: they would have been placed on the impregnable ground of an express grant. They would not have been compelled to resort to the debates in the convention, or the opinion that was generally entertained at the time. A constitution, or a statute, is supposed to contain the whole will of the body from which it emanated; and I would just as soon resort to the debates in the legislature for the construction of an act of assembly, as to the debates in the convention for the construction of the constitution.
The power is said to be restricted to cases that are free from doubt or difficulty. But the abstract existence of a power cannot depend on the clearness or obscurity of the case in which it is to be exercised; for that is a consideration that cannot present itself, before the question of the existence of the power shall have been determined; and, if its existence be conceded, no considerations of policy arising from the obscurity of the particular case, ought to influence the exercise of it. The judge would have no discretion; but the party submitting the question of constitutionality would have an interest in the decision of it, which could not be postponed to motives of deference for the opinion of the legislature. His rights would depend not on the greatness of the supposed discrepancy with the constitution, but on the existence of any discrepancy at all; and the judge would therefore be bound to decide this question, like every other in respect to which he may be unable to arrive at a perfectly satisfactory conclusion. But he would evade the question instead of deciding it, were he to refuse to decide in accordance with the inclination of his mind. To say, therefore, that the power is to be exercised but in perfectly clear cases, is to betray a doubt of the propriety of exercising it at all. Were the same caution used in judging of the existence of the power that is inculcated as to the exercise of it, the profession would perhaps arrive at a different conclusion. The grant of a power so extraordinary ought to appear so plain, that he who should run might read. Now, put the constitution into the hands of any man of plain sense, whose mind is free from an impression on the subject, and it will be impossible to persuade him, that the exercise of such a power was ever contemplated by the convention.
But the judges are sworn to support the constitution, and are they not bound by it as the law of the land? In some respects they are. In the very few cases in which the judiciary, and not the legislature, is the immediate organ to execute its provisions, they are bound by it in preference to any act of assembly to the contrary. In such cases, the constitution is a rule to the courts. But what I have in view in this inquiry, is the supposed right of the judiciary, to interfere, in cases where the constitution is to be carried into effect through the instrumentality of the legislature, and where that organ must necessarily first decide on the constitutionality of its own act. The oath to support the constitution is not peculiar to the judges, but is taken indiscriminately by every officer of the government, and is designed rather as a test of the political principles of the man, than to bind the officer in the discharge of his duty: otherwise it were difficult to determine what operation it is to have in the case of a recorder of deeds, for instance, who, in the execution of his office, has nothing to do with the constitution. But granting it to relate to the official conduct of the judge, as well as every other officer, and not to his political principles, still it must be understood in reference to supporting the constitution, only as far as that may be involved in his official duty; and, consequently, if his official duty does not comprehend an inquiry into the authority of the legislature, neither does his oath. It is worthy of remark here, that the foundation of every argument in favour of the right of the judiciary, is found at last to be an assumption of the whole ground in dispute. Granting that the object of the oath is to secure a support of the constitution in the discharge of official duty, its terms may be satisfied by restraining it to official duty in the exercise of the ordinary judicial powers. Thus, the constitution may furnish a rule of construction, where a particular interpretation of a law would conflict with some constitutional principle; and such interpretation, where it may, is always to be avoided. But the oath was more probably designed to secure the powers of each of the different branches from being usurped by any of the rest; for instance, to prevent the house of representatives from erecting itself into a court of judicature, or the Supreme Court from attempting to control the legislature; and, in this view, the oath furnishes an argument equally plausible against the right of the judiciary. But if it require a support of the constitution in any thing beside official duty, it is in fact an oath of allegiance to a particular form of government; and, considered as such, it is not easy to see why it should not be taken by the citizens at large, as well as by the officers of the government. It has never been thought that an officer is under greater restraint as to measures which have for their avowed end a total change of the constitution, than a citizen who has taken no oath at all. The official oath, then, relates only to the official conduct of the officer, and does not prove that he ought to stray from the path of his ordinary business to search for violations of duty in the business of others; nor does it, as supposed, define the powers of the officer.
But do not the judges do a positive act in violation of the constitution, when they give effect to an unconstitutional law? Not if the law has been passed according to the forms established in the constitution. The fallacy of the question is, in supposing that the judiciary adopts the acts of the legislature as its own; whereas the enactment of a law and the interpretation of it are not concurrent acts, and as the judiciary is not required to concur in the enactment, neither is it in the breach of the constitution which may be the consequence of the enactment. The fault is imputable to the legislature, and on it the responsibility exclusively rests. In this respect, the judges are in the predicament of jurors who are bound to serve in capital cases, although unable, under any circumstances, to reconcile it to their duty to deprive a human being of life. To one of these, who applied to be discharged from the panel, I once heard it remarked, by an eminent and humane judge, "You do not deprive a prisoner of life by finding him guilty of a capital crime: you but pronounce his case to be within the law, and it is therefore those who declare the law, and not you, who deprive him of life."
That every thing addressed to the legislature by way of positive command, is purely directory, will hardly be disputed: it is only to enforce prohibitions that the interposition of judicial authority is thought to be warrantable. But I can see no room for a distinction between the injunctions that are positive and those that are negative: the same authority must enforce both.
But it has been said, that this construction would deprive the citizen of the advantages which are peculiar to a written constitution, by at once declaring the power of the legislature, in practice, to be illimitable. I ask, what are those advantages? The principles of a written constitution are more fixed and certain, and more apparent to the apprehension of the people, than principles which depend on tradition and the vague comprehension of the individuals who compose the nation, and who cannot all be expected to receive the same impressions or entertain the same notions on any given subject. But there is no magic or inherent power in parchment and ink, to command respect and protect principles from violation. In the business of government, a recurrence to first principles answers the end of an observation at sea with a view to correct the dead reckoning; and, for this purpose, a written constitution is an instrument of inestimable value. It is of inestimable value, also, in rendering its principles familiar to the mass of the people; for, after all, there is no effectual guard against legislative usurpation but public opinion, the force of which, in this country, is inconceivably great. Happily this is proved, by experience, to be a sufficient guard against palpable infractions. The constitution of this state has withstood the shocks of strong party excitement for thirty years, during which no act of the legislature has been declared unconstitutional, although the judiciary has constantly asserted a right to do so in clear cases. But it would be absurd to say, that this remarkable observance of the constitution has been produced, not by the responsibility of the legislature to the people, but by an apprehension of control by the judiciary. Once let public opinion be so corrupt as to sanction every misconstruction of the constitution and abuse of power which the temptation of the moment may dictate, and the party which may happen to be predominant, will laugh at the puny efforts of a dependent power to arrest it in its course.
For these reasons, I am of opinion that it rests with the people, in whom full and absolute sovereign power resides to correct abuses in legislation, by instructing their representatives to repeal the obnoxious act. What is wanting to plenary power in the government, is reserved by the people for their own immediate use; and to redress an infringement of their rights in this respect, would seem to be an accessory of the power thus reserved. It might, perhaps, have been better to vest the power in the judiciary; as it might be expected that its habits of deliberation, and the aid derived from the arguments of counsel, would more frequently lead to accurate conclusions. On the other hand, the judiciary is not infallible; and an error by it would admit of no remedy but a more distinct expression of the public will, through the extraordinary medium of a convention; whereas, an error by the legislature admits of a remedy by an exertion of the same will, in the ordinary exercise of the right of suffrage,--a mode better calculated to attain the end, without popular excitement. It may be said, the people would probably not notice an error of their representatives. But they would as probably do so, as notice an error of the judiciary; and, beside, it is a postulate in the theory of our government, and the very basis of the superstructure, that the people are wise, virtuous, and competent to manage their own affairs: and if they are not so, in fact, still every question of this sort must be determined according to the principles of the constitution, as it came from the hands of its framers, and the existence of a defect which was not foreseen, would not justify those who administer the government, in applying a corrective in practice, which can be provided only by a convention. Long and uninterrupted usage is entitled to respect; and, although it cannot change an admitted principle of the constitution, it will go far to settle a question of doubtful right. But although this power has all along been claimed by the state judiciary, it has never been exercised. Austin v. The University of Pennsylvania, (1 Yeates, 260,) is the only case even apparently to the contrary; but there the act of assembly had been previously repealed. In Vanhorne v. Dorrance, decided by the Circuit Court of the United States under similar circumstances, the right is peremptorily asserted and examples of monstrous violations of the constitution are put in a strong light by way of example; such as taking away the trial by the jury, the elective franchise, or subverting religious liberty. But any of these would be such a usurpation of the political rights of the citizens, as would work a change in the very structure of the government; or, to speak more properly, it would itself be a revolution, which, to counteract, would justify even insurrection; consequently, a judge might lawfully employ every instrument of official resistance within his reach. By this I mean, that while the citizen should resist with pike and gun, the judge might co-operate with habeas corpus and mandamus. It would be his duty, as a citizen, to throw himself into the breach, and, if it should be necessary, perish there; but this is far from proving the judiciary to be a peculiar organ under the constitution, to prevent legislative encroachment on the powers reserved by the people; and this is all that I contend it is not. Indeed, its absolute inadequacy to the object, is conclusive that it never was intended as such by the framers of the constitution, who must have had in view the probable operation of the government in practice.
But in regard to an act of assembly, which is found to be in collision with the constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, I take the duty of the judiciary to be exactly the reverse. By becoming parties to the federal constitution, the states have agreed to several limitations of their individual sovereignty, to enforce which, it was thought to be absolutely necessary to prevent them from giving effect to laws in violation of those limitations, through the instrumentality of their own judges. Accordingly, it is declared in the fifth article and second section of the federal constitution, that "This constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be BOUND thereby; any thing in the laws or constitution of any state to the contrary notwithstanding."
This is an express grant of a political power, and it is conclusive to show that no law of inferior obligation, as every state law must necessarily be, can be executed at the expense of the constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. It may be said, these are to furnish a rule only when there is no state provision on the subject. But, in that view, they could with no propriety be called supreme; for supremacy is a relative term, and cannot be predicated of a thing which exists separately and alone: and this law, which is called supreme, would change its character and become subordinate as soon as it should be found in conflict with a state law. But the judges are to be bound by the federal constitution and laws, notwithstanding any thing in the constitution or laws of the particular state to the contrary. If, then, a state were to declare the laws of the United States not to be obligatory on her judges, such an act would unquestionably be void; for it will not be pretended, that any member of the union can dispense with the obligation of the federal constitution; and, if it cannot be done directly, and by a general declaratory law, neither can it indirectly, and by by-laws dispensing with it in particular cases. This, therefore, is an express grant of the power, and would be sufficient for the purposes of the argument; but it is not all.
By the third article and second section, appellate jurisdiction of all cases arising under the constitution and laws of the United States, is reserved to the federal judiciary, under such regulations as congress may prescribe; and, in execution of this provision, congress has prescribed regulations for removing into the Supreme Court of the United States, all causes decided by the highest court of judicature of any state, which involve the construction of the constitution, or of any law or treaty of the United States. This is another guard against infraction of the limitations imposed on state sovereignty, and one which is extremely efficient in practice; for reversals of decisions in favour of the constitutionality of acts of assembly, have been frequent on writs of error to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Now, a reversal implies that it was not only the right, but the duty of the inferior court to decide otherwise; for where there is but one way of deciding, there can be no error. But what beneficial result would there be produced by the decision of a state court in favour of a state law palpably unconstitutional? The injured party would have the judgment reversed by the court in the last resort, and the cause would come back with a mandate to decide differently, which the state court dare not disobey; so that nothing would eventually be gained by the party claiming under the law of the state, but, on the contrary, he would be burdened with additional costs. I grant, however, that the state judiciary ought not to exercise the power except in cases free from all doubt, because, as a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the United States lies to correct an error only in favour of the constitutionality of the state law, an error in deciding against it would be irremediable. Anticipating those who think they perceive in this, exactly what I have censured in those who assume the existence of the same power in respect to laws that are repugnant to the constitution of the state, but restrict the exercise of it to clear cases, I briefly remark that the instances are not parallel; an error in deciding against the validity of the law, being irreparable in the one, and not so in the other.
Unless, then, the respective states are not bound by the engagement, which they have contracted by becoming parties to the constitution of the United States, they are precluded from denying either the right or the duty of their judges, to declare their laws void when they are repugnant to that constitution.
The preceding inquiry may perhaps appear foreign to the point immediately before the court; but, as the act of 1815 may be thought repugnant to the constitution of the state, an examination of the powers of the judiciary, became not only proper but necessary.
Then, laying the constitution of the state out of the case, what restriction on state sovereignty is violated by at once repealing any of the saving clauses in the statute of limitations? Those restrictions are contained in the first article and tenth section of the constitution of the United States; and, as there is no pretence that a contract has been impaired, none of them can, even by the most strained construction, be supposed to be violated, except that which relates to ex post facto laws. But that was held, in Calder v. Bull, (Dall. 386,) to be applicable only to penal laws. The law in question not only relates to civil rights, but is not even retrospective. It is commonly said, that the statute of limitations does not run against any one, who is within the benefit of any clause of the proviso; but this is plainly inaccurate. It actually runs,--but ten years from the removal of the disability provided for, are given in addition to the original period, and this as a personal privilege in avoidance of the bar, which would otherwise be decisive. If it were actually to begin to run only from the removal of the disability, the party would have twenty-one years from that period. Now, suppose it to be removed at the conclusion of the twentieth year, it will not be pretended that he would still have twenty-one years in addition: yet that consequence would be inevitable, were the statute not to begin to run before. So, where the disability is removed during the first year, the party will not be compelled to make entry with the ensuing ten; for the saving does not come into operation till the period which constitutes a bar in ordinary cases has elapsed: he must, therefore, in such case, make his entry within the original period. Then, by putting in force a limitation which had all along been running against the plaintiffs, the act of 1815 did not operate retrospectively, but deprived them of a prospective exemption, which, having been gratuitous, cannot be said to have originated in contract. I am therefore of opinion that the judgment be affirmed.
The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 3, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 80
The University of Chicago Press
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