Calder v. Bull

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Calder v. Bull
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued February 8, 1798
Decided August 8, 1798
Full case name Calder et Wife v. Bull et Wife
Citations 3 U.S. 386 (more)
3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 386; 1 L. Ed. 648; 1798 U.S. LEXIS 148
Prior history In error from the State of Connecticut
Ex post facto clause applies to criminal, not civil cases
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Chase, joined by Ellsworth, Wilson, Cushing, Paterson
Concurrence Paterson
Concurrence Iredell

Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798),[1] is a United States Supreme Court case in which the Court examined its authority to review state legislature decisions.[1]


The Connecticut legislature ordered a new trial in a court case about the contents of a will, overruling an earlier court ruling. In a unanimous decision, the United States Supreme Court held that the legislature's actions did not violate the ex post facto law in article 1, section 10 of the Constitution, which states:

No State shall enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation; grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal; coin Money; emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.

An ex post facto law or retroactive law, is a law that retroactively changes the legal consequences of acts committed or the legal status of facts and relationships that existed prior to the enactment of the law.[2]

The holding in this case still remains good law: the ex post facto provision of the Constitution applies solely to criminal cases, not civil cases.[1]

Legal arguments[edit]

In this case, the participating Supreme Court judges were: William Cushing, James Iredell, William Paterson and Samuel Chase.

Justice Samuel Chase argued that the government has no authority to interfere with an individual's rights, and "the general principles of law and reason" forbid the legislature from interfering. He then explained that judges ought to rely on natural law when making their decisions:

The purposes for which men enter into society will determine the nature and terms of their social compact.... There are certain vital principles in our free republican governments which will determine and overrule an apparent and flagrant abuse of legislative power; as to authorize manifest injustice by positive law; or to take away that security for personal liberty, or private property, for the protection whereof government was established. An act of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority.... It seems to me, that the right of property, in its origin, could only arise from compact express, or implied, and I think it the better opinion, that the right, as well as the mode, or manner, or acquiring property, and of alienating or transferring, inheriting, or transmitting it, is conferred by society...and is always subject to the rules prescribed by positive law.

Justice James Iredell stated that courts cannot strike down statutes based only upon principles of natural justice:

[t]he ideas of natural justice are regulated by no fixed standard: the ablest and the purest men have differed upon the subject; and all that the Court could properly say, in such an event, would be, that the Legislature (possessed of an equal right of opinion) had passed an act which, in the opinion of the judges, was inconsistent with the abstract principles of natural justice.

Iredell affirmed the ability of the Supreme Court to review legislative acts, but based on something more than principles of natural justice:

If any act of Congress, or of the Legislature of a state, violates those constitutional provisions, it is unquestionably void...If, on the other hand, the Legislature of the Union, or the Legislature of any member of the Union, shall pass a law, within the general scope of their constitutional power, the Court cannot pronounce it to be void, merely because it is, in their judgment, contrary to the principles of natural justice...

There are then but two lights, in which the subject can be viewed: 1st. If the Legislature pursue the authority delegated to them, their acts are valid...they exercise the discretion vested in them by the people, to whom alone they are responsible for the faithful discharge of their trust... 2nd. If they transgress the boundaries of that authority, their acts are invalid...they violate a fundamental law, which must be our guide, whenever we are called upon as judges to determine the validity of a legislative act.


If, then, a government, composed of Legislative, Executive and Judicial departments, were established, by a Constitution, which imposed no limits on the legislative power, the consequence would inevitably be, that whatever the legislative power chose to enact, would be lawfully enacted, and the judicial power could never interpose to pronounce it void. It is true, that some speculative jurists have held, that a legislative act against natural justice must, in itself, be void; but I cannot think that, under such a government, any Court of Justice would possess a power to declare it so.

Justice William Cushing agreed with the judgement, saying that:

The case appears to me to be clear of all difficulty, taken either way. If the act is a judicial act, it is not touched by the Federal Constitution: and, if it is a legislative act, it is maintained and justified by the ancient and uniform practice of the state of Connecticut.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Ariens, Michael. Famous Cases Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386 (1798). 
  2. ^ David P, Currie (1992). The Constitution in the Supreme Court: The First Hundred Years, 1789–1888. University of Chicago Press. p. 41. ISBN 0-226-13109-2.