Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheaton (19 U.S.) 264; 5 L. Ed. 257 (1821)

Cohens v. Virginia, 6 Wheaton (19 U.S.) 264; 5 L. Ed. 257 (1821)

Facts—Congress passed a law in 1802 authorizing the District of Columbia to conduct lotteries. Acting under this authority, the city passed an ordinance creating a lottery. The state of Virginia had a law forbidding lotteries except as established by that state. P. J. and M. J. Cohen were arrested in Norfolk, Virginia, charged with selling tickets for the lottery. They were found guilty and fined $100. Then they appealed to the Supreme Court, to which Virginia did not object since the states desired to force the issue of the Supreme Court’s authority over state actions.

Question—Is the jurisdiction of the Court excluded by the character of the parties, one of them a state and the other a citizen of that state?


ReasonsC.J. Marshall (6–0). “Where, then, a state obtains a judgment against an individual, and the court, rendering such judgment, overrules a defense set up under the Constitutions or laws of the United States, the transfer of this record into the Supreme Court, for the sole purpose of inquiring whether the judgment violates the Constitution or laws of the United States can, with no propriety, we think, be denominated by a suit commenced or prosecuted against the state whose judgment is so far reexamined. Nothing is demanded from the state. No claim against it of any description is asserted or prosecuted. The party is not to be restored to the possession of anything. Whether it be by writ of error or appeal, no claim is asserted, no demand is made by the original defendant; he only asserts the constitutional right to have his defense examined by that tribunal whose province it is to construe the Constitution and laws of the Union. It is, then, the opinion of the Court, that the defendant who removes a judgment rendered against him by a State court into this Court, for the purpose of reexamining the question, whether that judgment be in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, does not commence or prosecute a suit against the State, whatever may be its opinion where the effect of the writ may be to restore the party to the possession of a thing which he demands. ”

Note—In Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 1 Wheaton 304 (1816), the Court held that the Constitution, in order to bring uniformity to U.S. jurisprudence, extended the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to cases in state courts that involved the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States. Cohens further established that when a state has obtained a judgment against an individual in a state court over a defense based on the Constitution or laws of the United States, the Supreme Court may review the decision.

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