Calder v. Bull case brief
Subject: (The ability of the Supreme Court to overrule legislation on the basis of Natural law)
Facts: A Connecticut probate court had disapproved a will designating the respondents as beneficiaries, thus allowing petitioners to inherit as decedent's heirs at law. The Connecticut legislature passed a resolution setting aside the decree and granting a new hearing, at which the will was approved. To petitioners' claim that the Legislative act was an ex post facto law in violation of Article I, §10, the Court responded that the clause was limited to criminal legislation. But justice Chase went on to consider whether, apart from this or any other specific provision of the Constitution, a government could deprive a citizen of a vested property right.
Justice Chase believed that the drafters of the constitutions of the federal and state governments intended to create governments of limited powers and that natural law, as well as the specific provisions of written constitutions, restricted and regulated governmental power. He felt that the province of the judiciary was to ensure that the government did not violate the rights of the people under the natural law. Therefore, Justice Chase decided that the proper role of the Supreme Court was to invalidate legislation if the Justices believed that it interfered with rights that the natural law had vested in the people.
Justice Iredell, on the other hand, made a plea for what is now known as judicial restraint. He contended that—even if natural law ought to prevail—no valid legal theory existed that indicated that a court should have the power to enforce the natural law over the will of the people as that will was reflected by the other branches of government. If the Court relied upon natural law to overturn legislative acts, the Justices not only would assume powers not granted them under the Constitution but also would disparage the democratic process. Thus, Justice Iredell believed that the courts had no role in enforcing natural law principles because enforcement of such principles would result in the subservience of the people to the individual views of the Justices.
In developing controls and checks over the state governments the federal judiciary moved slowly. The text of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights contain only a limited number of restraints on the actions of state governments. No matter how much individual Justices may have wanted to limit the authority of state governments on the basis of natural law, they realized that using natural law would be a difficult task.
Strong arguments against the ability of any branch of the federal government to control state actions had been made by representatives of the states. Consequently, the Justices realized that they would need something more concrete than the natural law as the basis for their decisions if they voided state legislative or executive actions. The original Constitution, however, offered little basis for assuming control of state activities through a natural law formula.
The Bill of Rights might have provided a number of specific provisions for controlling the activities of state governments. The history of the Bill of Rights, however, clearly showed that the authors of the Amendments intended that they only apply to the federal government.
Anti-federalists had objected to the new Constitution because the document contained no specific guarantees that the new national government would not infringe on certain individual rights. The Federalists, on the other hand, had argued that no such enumeration was necessary because no power delegated to the natural government in the body of the Constitution would enable it to legitimately eliminate individual liberties. Indeed, the Federalists argued that listing protected rights would be dangerous because a government may interpret the enumeration of specific protected rights as an implied exclusion of those rights not so listed because of drafting or timing limitations.The Anti-federalists, however, sought and gained assurances that the federal government, by amendment to the Constitution, would guarantee certain individual liberties. This bargain resulted in the first Congress drafting the Bill of Rights. The ratification process for the ten amendments went swiftly and they were ratified in 1791. The history of the Bill of Rights revealed the difficulty the Supreme Court would have had in suggesting that the Amendments were intended as a check on the powers of state governments. Indeed, the Court soon acknowledged that the Bill of Rights only limited the acts of the federal government.