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Martin v. Hunter's Lessee

"the Supreme Law Of The Land"

In a unanimous decision for the Court, Story rebuked the state courts of Virginia for not abiding by the ruling of the Supreme Court. Although state judges are called upon to decide cases, their authority rested not in the laws and constitution of their own states, Story argued, but rather in the "supreme law of the land"--the U.S. Constitution.

Thus, Story explained, if state courts did not recognize the authority of the appellate court (the court to which cases are appealed), then there is no uniform, national power that applies equally to the entire United States. Each state court would then be able to interpret the Constitution as it pleased, which would have the same effect as not having a single constitution to unite the country.

By the same token, federal laws and treaties must also be open to final interpretation by a single, supreme court. Therefore, Story said, if the Supreme Court interpreted U.S. law and U.S. treaties to mean that Martin and not Hunter was the rightful owner of the Virginia property, the Virginia courts must agree--or face the spectre of a truly divided nation. To quote Story's own words:

The constitution of the United States was ordained and established, not by the states in their sovereign capacities, but emphatically, as the preamble of the constitution declares, by "the people of the United States" . . . The constitution was not, therefore, necessarily carved out of existing state sovereignties, nor a surrender of powers already existing in state institutions . . . [T]he judicial power of the United States [is established as] . . . one great department which [is] . . . in many respects, national, and in all, supreme. It is a part of the very same instrument which was to act not merely upon individuals, but upon states; and to deprive them altogether of the exercise of some powers of sovereignty, and to restrain and regulate them in the exercise of others.

Story's opinion in Martin v. Hunter's Lessee is considered the most important in his 34 years on the Court. It stands as a landmark in the history of "federal judicial supremacy"--the notion that the federal courts are supreme. The story of conflict between states' rights and federal standards has continued throughout the decades, most notably over the issues of slavery and civil rights. Ironically, the perception of which side was "liberal" and which "conservative" has changed over the years, but the issue remains an important one in American politics.

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"