The First Supreme Court

Early Decisions of the Supreme Court

Of the cases that the Supreme Court heard within the first decade, three stand out for consideration:

West v. Barnes (1791)

The Court’s first decision, West v. Barnes (1791), demonstrated both the seriatim approach and the justices’ preoccupation with legal procedure under the new national court system.  The case offered the Court the opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of a Rhode Island statute of 1786 that allowed debtors to use paper money rather than gold or silver to pay contractual obligations.  The justices, however, looked again to their English heritage and focused on procedural requirements rather than on the merits of the case.  

West v. Barnes had come within federal jurisdiction because it involved citizens of two states, a Rhode Island debtor (West) and a Massachusetts creditor (Barnes).   West had submitted his payment to Barnes using paper money, which Barnes refused to accept as valid currency. Then, claiming that West had failed to pay the debt, Barnes sought to eject West from the property that secured the debt.  Before the circuit court, West argued that he had satisfied his obligations to Barnes, pointing to the Rhode Island statute that permitted payment with paper money.  The circuit court (Justices Jay and Cushing sitting with a district court judge) held against West in Barnes’ claim for ejectment.  West sought review by the Supreme Court, looking to it to validate the Rhode Island statute.

But West’s appeal, as frequently had happened in cases in English courts, sank into a procedural quagmire over the proper process for bringing a case to the Supreme Court for review of a lower court decision.  The Judiciary Act called for the Supreme Court to issue writs of error (orders to lower courts to send the records of cases for review).  West had convinced the circuit court to issue the writ, so that he would not have to travel to Washington to file a petition asking the Supreme Court itself to do so.  In seriatim opinions, the Justices wrote that West had not followed the strict requirement for writs of error under Section 23 of the Judiciary Act.  They declared his writ of error invalid and dismissed his appeal.  

Some of the justices lamented the unfairness of the requirements for the writ of error process contained in the Judiciary Act, particularly the hardship that it imposed on litigants who were not wealthy or who lived far from Washington.  But, they said, Congress, not the Supreme Court, was responsible for correcting the procedural problem. Justice Iredell wrote, “It is of infinite moment that Courts of Justice should keep within their proper bounds, and construe, not amend, acts of Legislation.”  The Justices thus blamed Congress for the statutory deficiency and ducked the opportunity to rule on the constitutionality of the Rhode Island statute.    

Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)

In 1793, the Court had another case on its docket that involved a debtor and creditor.  This time, however, the debtor was the state of Georgia, not an individual.  Georgia owed money to the estate of a British merchant, Robert Farquar, who had been living in South Carolina. The executor of Farquar’s estate, Alexander Chisholm, sought to collect the debt by filing suit against the state of Georgia in the United States Circuit Court.  Georgia responded that it could not be sued in federal court without its consent.  Acting in his capacity as a circuit court judge, Justice Iredell agreed and dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction.  The executors of the estate took the case to the United States Supreme Court.  Again, the state of Georgia refused to appear.  The state legislature adopted a resolution stating that the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction over suits against states by citizens of other states and declared that Georgia would treat a federal court judgment in the case as unconstitutional.  

In Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) four justices (Jay, Blair, Wilson and Cushing) wrote opinions holding that states could be sued in federal court without their consent.  This was a controversy that had been festering since the debates at the Constitutional Convention and touched fundamental questions of state sovereignty.  The four justices seemed to agree that adoption of the Constitution had marked a shift in sovereignty from the previously independent states to the people of the United States. They concluded that, at least for purposes of the lawsuit, Georgia was not a sovereign entity.  Justice Iredell vehemently disagreed.  

The opinions written by the four justices in the majority demonstrated a boldness not previously seen in their opinions. They rejected Justice Iredell’s contention that analysis of the legal status of members of various European confederacies provided a guide for interpreting the United States Constitution.  Justice Blair, for example, asserted, “The Constitution of the United States is the only fountain from which I shall draw; the only authority to which I shall appeal.”  Justice Cushing likewise contended that neither the law of England nor that of any other nation was relevant in interpreting the United States Constitution.  Justice Wilson wrote extensively about the meaning of sovereignty under the Constitution and concluded, “I find nothing which tends to evince an exemption of the state of Georgia from the jurisdiction of the court. I find everything to have a contrary tendency.”   Chief Justice Jay wrote that Georgia, by being a party to the National Compact, had consented to being sued in federal courts by individual citizens of another State.  The Chief Justice argued that extending the judicial power of the United States to controversies in which states were a party was both honest and useful. 

It is honest because it provides for doing justice without respect of persons, and, by securing individual citizens as well as States in their respective rights, performs the promise which every free government makes to every free citizen of equal justice and protection. It is useful because it is honest; because it leaves not even the most obscure and friendless citizen without means of obtaining justice from a neighbouring State; because it obviates occasions of quarrels between States on account of the claims of their respective citizens; because it recognizes and strongly rests on this great moral truth that justice is the same whether due from one man or a million, or from a million to one man; because it teaches and greatly appreciates the value of our free republican national government, which places all our citizens on an equal footing, and enables each and every of them to obtain justice without any danger of being overborne by the weight and number of their opponents; and because it brings into action and enforces this great and glorious principle — that the people are the sovereign of this country, and consequently that fellow citizens and joint sovereigns cannot be degraded by appearing with each other in their own courts to have their controversies determined.

The decision in Chisholm was a profound shock to the states, which believed that they had retained their essential sovereignty when they joined the union and hence, could not be dragged into federal courts without their consent. The Massachusetts legislature had just learned that it, too, was being sued in federal court.  It circulated a letter to the other states condemning Chisholm and urging that the Constitution be amended.  

The Eleventh Amendment was introduced into the Senate shortly thereafter and was approved by that body in January 1794.  The House approved the amendment two months later.  It was ratified by the states in 1795.  The Amendment provides:

The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State …”  

Thus, in the one instance during its first decade that the Supreme Court flexed its judicial muscle to defend the jurisdiction of federal courts over the states, the states struck back quickly.  Chisholm was overturned by an amendment to the Constitution.  

Hylton v. United States (1796)

Three years after Chisholm, in Hylton v. United States (1796), the justices ruled for the first time on the constitutionality of an act of Congress. In 1794, Congress had levied a tax on passenger carriages, and the United States sued Daniel Hylton for nonpayment of the tax.  Hylton defended on the ground that the carriage tax was a “direct tax” under Article I, section 8, of the Constitution.  That section permits Congress to levy direct taxes only if they are apportioned according to population. On appeal, the three justices who heard the case agreed that the carriage tax was an indirect tax and therefore did not violate Article I, section 8.  The justices issued their opinions seriatim.  Again, there was no opinion of the court.  

Hylton was an important case from the perspective of the Supreme Court as an institution , because it revealed that the justices assumed that they had the power to rule on the constitutionality of Congressional statutes.   Perhaps the fact that the justices expressed only their individual opinions about the constitutionality of carriage tax made the case seem like a less threatening exercise of judicial power than if the Court had issued just one opinion.   Or perhaps the fact that the justices upheld an act of Congress, rather than invalidating it, spared them from attack by Congress.