Landmark Supreme Court Case: Calder v. Bull (1798)
Calder v. Bull (1798) is the second landmark Supreme Court case, and the first case in the Criminal Rights module, featured in the KTB Prep American Government and Civics Series designed to acquaint users with the origins, concepts, organizations, and policies of the United States government and political system. The goal is greater familiarization with the rights and obligations of citizenship at the local, state, national, and global levels and the history of our nation as a democracy. While there is overlap, these landmark cases are separated into cases addressing:
- Foreign Policy
- Science & Technology
- Public Safety
- Death Penalty
- Speech, Press, and Protest
- Criminal Justice
- Politics, Society, Freedom, and Equality
The Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States. Article III of the U.S. Constitution created the Supreme Court and authorized Congress to pass laws establishing a system of lower courts. The Constitution elaborated neither the exact powers and prerogatives of the Supreme Court nor the organization of the Judicial Branch as a whole. Thus, it has been left to Congress and to the Justices of the Court through their decisions to develop the Federal Judiciary and a body of Federal law.
The number of Justices on the Supreme Court changed six times before settling at the present total of nine in 1869. Since the formation of the Court in 1790, there have been only 17 Chief Justices* and 102 Associate Justices, with Justices serving for an average of 16 years. On average a new Justice joins the Court almost every two years.
The Supreme Court of the United States hears about 100 to 150 appeals of the more than 7,000 cases it is asked to review every year. That means the decisions made by the 12 Circuit Courts of Appeals across the country and the Federal Circuit Court are the last word in thousands of cases.
Court of Appeals
In the federal court system’s present form, 94 district level trial courts and 13 courts of appeals sit below the Supreme Court. The 94 federal judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a court of appeals. The appellate court’s task is to determine whether or not the law was applied correctly in the trial court. Appeals courts consist of three judges and do not use a jury.
The appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury. Appellate courts review the procedures and the decisions in the trial court to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.
A court of appeals hears challenges to district court decisions from courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws, and cases decided by the U.S. Court of International Trade and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
The nation’s 94 trial courts are called U.S. District Courts. At a trial in a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. District courts resolve disputes by determining the facts and applying legal principles to decide who is right.
Trial courts include the district judge who tries the case and a jury that decides the case. Magistrate judges assist district judges in preparing cases for trial. They may also conduct trials in misdemeanor cases.
There is at least one district court in each state, and the District of Columbia. Each district includes a U.S. bankruptcy court as a unit of the district court.
Federal courts have exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases involving personal, business, or farm bankruptcy. This means a bankruptcy case cannot be filed in state court. Bankruptcy Appellate Panels (BAPs) are 3-judge panels authorized to hear appeals of bankruptcy court decisions. These panels are a unit of the federal courts of appeals, and must be established by that circuit. Five circuits have established panels: First Circuit, Sixth Circuit, Eighth Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and Tenth Circuit.
Calder v. Bull (1798)
Mr. and Mrs. Caleb Bull, the stated beneficiaries of the will of Norman Morrison, were denied an inheritance by a Connecticut probate court. When the Bulls attempted to appeal the decision more than a year and a half later, they found that a state law prohibited appeals not made within 18 months of the original ruling. The Bulls persuaded the Connecticut legislature to change the restriction, which enabled them to successfully appeal the case. Calder, the initial inheritor of Morrison’s estate, took the case to the Supreme Court.
Q: Was the Connecticut legislation a violation of Article 1, Section 10, of the Constitution, which prohibits ex post facto laws (a law that changes the legal status or consequences of an action after it has already been done, especially a law that makes an action illegal after it has been committed)
A: No. The Court held that the legislation was not an ex post facto law. The Court drew a distinction between criminal rights and “private rights,” arguing that restrictions against ex post facto laws were not designed to protect citizens’ contract rights.
Unanimous decision ruling the ex post facto clause applies to criminal, not civil, cases. The Court decided four important points of constitutional law:
First, the ex post facto clause of the United States Constitution applies to criminal laws that have at least one of four effects:
- Every law that makes an action done before the passing of the law, and which was innocent when done, criminal; and punishes such action.
- Every law that aggravates a crime, makes it greater than it was, when committed.
- Every law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed.
- 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
Second, the Supreme Court lacked the authority to nullify state laws that violate that state’s constitution:
this court has no jurisdiction to determine that any law of any state Legislature, contrary to the Constitution of such state is void.
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.
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.
Next Criminal Rights Case: Strauder v. West Virginia (1880)
Next Case: Marbury v. Madison (1803)
Previous Case: Chisholm v. Georgia (1793)