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 decided four important points of constitutional law.

First, the ex post facto clause of the United States Constitution only applies to criminal laws that have at least one of four effects: "1st. Every law that makes an action done before the passing of the law, and which was innocent when done, criminal; and punishes such action. 2nd. Every law that aggravates a crime, makes it greater than it was, when committed. 3rd. Every law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed. 4th. Every law that alters the legal rules of evidence, and receives less, or different, testimony, than the law required at the time of the commission of the offence, in order to convict the offender."[1] The decision restates this later as laws "that create, or aggregate, the crime; or encrease(sic) the punishment, or change the rules of evidence, for the purpose of conviction." (italics in original)[1]

Second, the Supreme Court said it had no authority to decide if an act of a state legislature violated that state's constitution. The Supreme Court decision says, "this court has no jurisdiction to determine that any law of any state Legislature, contrary to the Constitution of such state is void."[1]

Third, the Supreme Court said that "no man should be compelled to do what the laws do not require; nor to refrain from acts which the laws permit."(italics in original)[1]

Fourth, the Supreme Court decided that this specific act of the Connecticut legislature, and any other state legislative act, is not a violation of the ex post facto clause if "there is no fact done by Bull and wife, Plaintiff's in Error, that is in any manner affected by the law or resolution of Connecticut: It does not concern, or relate to, any act done by them."(italics in original)[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:

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.[3]

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:

Justice James Iredell stated that courts cannot strike down statutes based only upon 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:


Justice William Cushing agreed with the judgement, saying that:

This case explains that an ex post facto law is the legislature exercising a judicial power.

"These acts were legislative judgments; and an exercise of judicial power."

This case explained the grounds that individuals who brought forth such law used as a justification:

" The ground for the exercise of such legislative power was this, that the safety of the kingdom depended on the death, or other punishment, of the offender: as if traitors, when discovered, could be so formidable, or the government so insecure! With very few exceptions, the advocates of such laws were stimulated by ambition, or personal resentment, and vindictive malice. To prevent such, and similar, acts of violence and injustice, I believe, the Federal and State Legislatures, were prohibited from passing any bill of attainder; or any ex post facto law."

This case explained the difference between ex post facto laws (which are prohibited) and retrospective laws (which are allowed):

" In my opinion, the true distinction is between ex post facto laws, and retrospective laws. Every ex post facto law must necessarily be retrospective; but every retrospective law is not an ex post facto law: The former, only, are prohibited. Every law that takes away, or impairs, rights vested, agreeably to existing laws, is retrospective, and is generally unjust, and may be oppressive; and it is a good general rule, that a law should have no retrospect: but there are cases in which laws may justly, and for the benefit of the community, and also of individuals, relate to a time antecedent to their commencement; as statutes of oblivion, or of pardon." [4]

It should be noted that while this case is good law, courts do not decide if a law violates the ex post facto clause on based on its benefit to the person(individuals) it is enacted upon. Nor are challenges made to some retrospective law based on a separation of powers dispute.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c d e Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386, 1 L. Ed. 648, 1 L. Ed. 2d 648 (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. 
  3. ^ Ariens, Michael. "Famous Cases Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386 (1798)". 
  4. ^ "Calder V. Bull".