February 20, 1809 – Justice John Marshall Declares The Power of the Federal Judiciary Greater Than That of Individual States

On this day in history, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous Court, ruled in United States v. Peters (9 U.S. 115, 1809) that a state legislature could not annul a judgment of a federal court:

If the legislatures of the several states may, at will, annul the judgments of the courts of the United States, and destroy the rights acquired under those judgments, the constitution itself becomes a solemn mockery; and the nation is deprived of the means of enforcing its laws by the instrumentality of its own tribunals.”

Chief Justice John Marshall

Chief Justice John Marshall

Governor Snyder of Pennsylvania, against whose interests the ruling was made, and who was an avid supporter of state-rights, sent a message to the Pennsylvania legislature saying he would call the militia if necessary to prevent enforcement of the Court’s decision. The legislature obviously concurred with him:

Resolved, That, from the construction the United States’ courts give to their powers, the harmony of the States, if they resist encroachments on their rights, will frequently be interrupted; and, if to prevent this evil, they should, on all occasions, yield to stretches of power, the reserved rights of the States will depend on the arbitrary power of the courts.

Resolved, That should the independence of the States, as secured by the Constitution, be destroyed, the liberties of the people in so extensive a country cannot long survive.” 21 Annals Cong. 2265-66 (1810)

The Governor sent a letter to President James Madison, expecting his support, but received none. In a letter from Madison to Snyder on April 13, 1809, the President wrote:

…the Executive of the United States is not only unauthorized to prevent the execution of a decree sanctioned by the Supreme Court of the United States, but is expressly enjoined, by statute, to carry into effect any such decree where opposition may be made to it.” (21 Annals of Cong. 2269, 1810)

President James Madison

President James Madison

On April 15, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to withdraw the militia.

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