Landmark Supreme Court Case: Fletcher v. Peck (1810)
Fletcher v. Peck (1810) is the fourth landmark Supreme Court case, the first in the Economics 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.
Fletcher v. Peck (1810)
Following the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolution, Georgia claimed possession of the Yazoo lands, a 54,000 sq mi region of the Indian Reserve, west of its own territory. The land later became the states of Alabama and Mississippi.
In 1795, the Georgia legislature divided the area into four tracts. The state then sold the tracts to four separate land development companies for $500,000, about $0.014 per acre, a bargain even at 1790 prices. The Georgia legislature overwhelmingly approved this land grant, known as the Yazoo Land Act of 1795; however, it was later revealed that the Yazoo Land Act had been approved in return for bribes.
The voters rejected most of the incumbents in the next election. The new legislature, reacting to the public outcry, repealed the law and voided the transactions made under it.
Robert Fletcher and especially John Peck were speculators in the Yazoo lands. Fletcher bought a tract of land from Peck while the 1795 act was still in force. Fletcher, in 1803, brought a suit against Peck, claiming that Peck had not had clear title to the land when he sold it.
There was collusion between the two. Both would have their land secured if the Supreme Court decided that Native Americans did not hold original title. Fletcher set out to win the case.
Q: Could the contract between Fletcher and Peck be invalidated by an act of the Georgia legislature?
A: No. Under the Contracts Clause (Article 1, Section 10, Clause 1), states cannot rescind an agreement even if that agreement was reached illegally
5-1 ruling the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibited Georgia from voiding contracts for the transfer of land, even though they were secured through illegal bribery. Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts affirmed. The ruling lent further protection to property rights against popular pressures and is the earliest case of the Court asserting its right to invalidate state laws which are in conflict with or are otherwise contrary to the Constitution.
Next Economics Case: McCulloch v. Maryland (1819)
Next Case: Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee (1816)
Previous Case: Marbury v. Madison (1803)