Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee

14 U.S. 304 (1816)

Quick Summary

Martin (plaintiff) and Hunter’s Lessee (defendant) disputed the ownership of land in Virginia known as the Northern Neck. The plaintiff brings an ejectment action to restore his property rights, which were confiscated during the American Revolution. The Virginia Supreme Court upholds the state’s law allowing the confiscation, while the U.S. Supreme Court reverses and remands the decision, asserting that federal law supersedes state law.

Facts of the Case

During the American Revolution, Virginia passed laws allowing for the seizure of property belonging to Loyalists – those sympathetic to the British Crown. In 1791, Denny Martin, a British subject, held land in the Northern Neck region of Virginia and asserted his claim to its title. The plaintiff brought an ejectment action to restore their property rights and remove current tenants on the land. The Court initially ruled in favor of the defendant in the ejectment action.

On appeal, however, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s law allowing property confiscation despite the fact that it conflicted with a treaty signed by the federal government after the war. The United States Supreme Court reversed and remanded the decision, which stated that the treaty superseded state law. On rehearing the case, the Virginia court maintained its position, holding that its interpretation of the treaty was controlling and that the United States Supreme Court did not have the authority to impose its interpretation on state courts.

Procedural Posture and History

It is a writ of error from the Court of Appeals of Virginia based on its refusal to obey a mandate from the U.S. Supreme Court requiring execution of a judgment previously rendered in this case. The mandate was issued after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded a decision by the Virginia Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals of Virginia subsequently refused to carry out the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate.

I.R.A.C. Format


Does the U.S. Supreme Court have jurisdiction to review and determine the constitutionality of state court decisions that interpret federal law or the Constitution, specifically regarding section 25 of the Act?

Rule of Law

The U.S. Constitution grants the Supreme Court the power to review decisions by state courts interpreting federal law or the Constitution.

Reasoning and Analysis

The majority opinion held that the federal government derives its power directly from the people rather than the states. The Supremacy Clause and the language of the Constitution support the view that federal interpretations of federal law should supersede state interpretations. The majority argued that seeking uniform, predictable outcomes across all states justifies the Court’s right to review decisions by state courts.


The U.S. Supreme Court has the authority to review decisions by state courts that interpret federal law or the Constitution to ensure consistency and uniformity in their application.

Concurring Opinions

Justice William Johnson concurred with the majority opinion but did not author a separate opinion.

Dissenting Opinions

Chief Justice John Marshall recused himself from this case due to a financial conflict of interest and did not participate in the decision.

Key Takeaways

  1. The U.S. Supreme Court can review state court decisions interpreting federal law or the Constitution.
  2. Federal interpretations of federal law should override conflicting state interpretations.
  3. The goal of seeking uniform and predictable outcomes justifies judicial review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What is the role of judicial review in the U.S. legal system?

Judicial review is the power of U.S. courts, especially the U.S. Supreme Court, to review and potentially invalidate laws or actions that conflict with the Constitution. It ensures that government actions comply with the supreme law of the land, which is the Constitution.

  • For example: In Marbury v. Madison (1803), the U.S. Supreme Court used judicial review to declare a law unconstitutional, establishing this essential role.

How does the U.S. Supreme Court assert its authority over state court decisions?

The U.S. Supreme Court asserts its authority by reviewing and potentially reversing state court decisions that interpret federal law or the Constitution. When a state court decision conflicts with federal law or the Constitution, the Supreme Court can grant certiorari and decide the case, ensuring consistency and uniformity in the application of federal law nationwide.


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