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Cohens v. Virginia


Cohens v. Virginia crowned a series of decisions asserting the Supreme Court's authority to, in the words of Marshall, "decide all cases of every description under the laws of the United States." In this 1821 decision, Marshall legally demolished the claims of states' rights which would politically plunge the nation into Civil War in 1861: "The Constitution and laws of a state, insofar as they are repugnant to the Constitution and laws of the United States are absolutely void."

It was a cynical appeal, brought by two highly paid lawyers, on behalf of two speculators hoping to reap a multi-state harvest from a District of Columbia lottery. But it provided Chief Justice Marshall with grounds to assert the supremacy of the Union over the states.

In words that anticipated those of Abraham Lincoln in defending the Union 40 years later, Marshall unequivocally asserted the "We, the People" with which the Constitution began meant the Union, Congress and the Supreme Court created by that Constitution reigned over the states:

The United States form . . . a single nation . . . In war, we are one people. In all commercial regulations, we are one and the same people. In many other respects, the American people are one; and the government which is alone capable of controlling and managing their interests in all these respects is the government of the Union.

"It is their government, and in that character they have no other," Marshall declared in perhaps his most important decision--and in some of his most ringing words: "America has chosen to be a . . . nation; and for all these purposes, her government is complete . . . it is competent . . . it is supreme."

Albert Beveridge, Marshall's biographer, wrote that Cohens v. Virginia was one of the most famous cases in American jurisprudence, but, "on the merits, it amounted to nothing." But, as Beveridge added, although the "practical result of the appeal was nothing, it afforded John Marshall the opportunity to tell the Nation its duty."

Philip and Mendes Cohen, owners of a lottery authorized by Congress to operate in the District of Columbia, hoped to gleen the spare cash of people in other states. But officials in Norfolk, Virginia, zealously guarding the coffers of that state's lottery, fined the Cohens $100 for siphoning off the cash of Virginia citizens.

Marshall agreed with the constitutional claims of the Cohens' lawyers. David B. Ogden of New York, argued that Virginia had no authority to impose such fines since a "sovereign state, independent of the Union," does not exist. If federal courts did not review the decisions of state tribunals, federal authority would be surrendered, leaving "the Union a mere league or confederacy," argued William Pinckney, another Cohens' attorney and the nation's highest paid lawyer.

"On the merits," however, Marshall concurred with Virginia's attorneys, agreeing that the state had the power to regulate lottery sales within its borders. The District of Columbia lottery allowed by Congress was "only co-extensive with the city," Marshall ruled.

States' rights advocates were enraged--and suspicious--claiming the appeal had been "arranged . . . feigned" just to give Marshall an opportunity to assert national over states' interests. Even if the appeal was, "never was such contrivance so justified," Beveridge concluded.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832Cohens v. Virginia - Significance, Lotteries In America