March 20, 2015

In case you hadn’t been following the story, there’s quite a dispute in Alabama between state and federal judges.

The spat began with a January 2015 federal court ruling that struck down Alabama’s same-sex marriage bans as violating the U.S. Constitution.  After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to stay the ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court itself refused to stay the ruling (more on that in this post) – but not before Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore issued an order instructing the state’s probate judges to refuse to comply with the federal court’s order.

That dispute continues today, with federal judges insisting that state judges comply with their rulings, and Alabama state judges – the state supreme court, specifically – countering that the same-sex marriage ban is perfectly constitutional.

Of course, there’s a case that’s directly on point in resolving this dispute, one that is coincidentally celebrating its 199th anniversary today: Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee.

The 1816 ruling should be familiar to law students as one of the major pillars of federal court jurisdiction and authority, in that it explicitly held that the U.S. Supreme Court is the nation’s ultimate authority on interpreting federal law, superseding all state court interpretations thereof.

The dispute in the case arose over competing claims to land owned by Lord Fairfax, a British loyalist during the Revolutionary War.  Virginia seized the land from Fairfax during the war and transferred it to David Hunter.  After the war, however, the U.S. entered into a treaty with Great Britain, and one of the provisions thereof guaranteed the protection of lands owned by loyalists such as Fairfax.

Subsequently, Thomas Martin, Fairfax’s nephew and heir to the land after Fairfax died in 1781, sued to recover the confiscated land in Virginia state court.  Martin won at the trial court level, but on appeal to the Virginia Court of Appeals (then the state’s highest court), Martin lost, with the court ruling that Hunter was the legal owner of the land.

Upon further appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Virginia high court’s decision, finding that the tract of land rightfully belonged to Martin pursuant to the treaty.

However, the Virginia Court of Appeals refused to respect the Supreme Court’s ruling.  It further held once again that Hunter was the proper owner of the tract and that the U.S. Supreme Court had no authority to review and overturn its decisions.  Specifically, the Virginia court stated that state courts had the ultimate authority to interpret federal laws as they applied solely to state law concerns in state court.

The U.S. Supreme Court once again heard the appeal from the Virginia court’s ruling, and once again reversed it.  The Court held that the Judiciary Act of 1789, authorized by Article III of the Constitution, expressly allows the Supreme Court to review decisions of state courts, and that the Supreme Court had the final say on all interpretations of federal law.

And that decision has stood for nearly 200 years as a pillar of authority for the Supreme Court.  Without it, not only would we no longer have numerous landmark Court decisions (including Brown v. Board of Education and Miranda v. Arizona), but every individual state would conceivably have its own version of the U.S. Constitution based on two centuries’ worth of state court interpretations.

In spite of Martin’s long established character as one of the most fundamental foundations of federal legal authority, we are today witnessing a state court system that is attempting to flout this authority.

There is, nevertheless, little doubt that Alabama will ultimately prove unsuccessful in its efforts to evade federal authority on the issue (assuming, of course, that the U.S. Supreme Court rules as expected in its forthcoming same-sex marriage decision).  And this inevitability is due to the principles first laid out in Martin.

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