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Martin v. Hunter's Lessee

Rightful Owner Or Alien Enemy?

The roots of the Martin case go all the way back to the American Revolution, when Virginia passed laws to confiscate the property of the Loyalists (people still loyal to the King of England). Thomas Lord Fairfax was such a Loyalist, and he chose not to recognize Virginia's action. He simply left the property--known as Northern Neck--to Denny Fairfax (previously Denny Martin), a British subject. To confuse matters further, Lord Fairfax, although a Loyalist, was a citizen and resident of Virginia until his death in 1781. His heir, Denny Fairfax, was a native-born British subject who lived in England until his death, sometime between 1796 and 1803.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth of Virginia had confiscated the Fairfax property, which passed into the hands of David Hunter. Thus, by virtue of the "seal of the commonwealth of Virginia," David Hunter owned the land. But by virtue of the Treaty of Paris (1783) and Jay's Treaty (1794), national treaties that protected Loyalist holdings, the Fairfax heir--Thomas Bryan Martin--owned the land.

In 1813, Thomas Bryan Martin brought suit to establish his claim to the land. The case, known as Fairfax's Devisee v. Hunter's Lessee, reached the Supreme Court, which found in favor of Martin and the Fairfax family. Marshall, who had a family connection to the Fairfax family, recused himself (took himself off the case). So the author of the decision was the man whom the Democratic-Republicans had trusted to defend states' rights against the federal government, the man they had expected to uphold the rights of the people against the British aristocracy, Justice Story.

Not surprisingly, Story's decision infuriated advocates of states' rights, who claimed that his ruling had reduced the states to mere administrative units without any real power to make important decisions. Virginia, too, was not pleased. The state courts actually refused to do the legal work necessary to pass the land over to Martin. They said they were under no obligation to obey the Supreme Court.

Once again, Martin brought suit, this time in the case known as Martin v. Hunter's Lessee. Once again, Marshall recused himself while playing an important role behind the scenes. Story again wrote the decision.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Martin v. Hunter's Lessee - Significance, The President Vs. The Supreme Court, Rightful Owner Or Alien Enemy?, "the Supreme Law Of The Land"