Following is the case brief for Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264 (1821).
Case Summary of Cohens v. Virginia:
- The Cohens sold tickets for a D.C. lottery in Virginia. Virginia had a law prohibiting the sale of out-of-state lottery tickets.
- The Cohens were convicted and fined $100 for the violation. They appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The State of Virginia moved to dismiss the appeal, stating that the U.S. Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction.
- The U.S. Supreme Court held that the U.S. Constitution gave the Court the power to review State court decisions that involved federal law. It therefore had jurisdiction over the case. It also affirmed the Cohens’ convictions.
Cohens v. Virginia Case Brief
Statement of the Facts:
In 1812, a National Lottery was enacted by Congress to raise money for the District of Columbia. Around the same time, the State of Virginia passed a law prohibiting the sale of out-of-state lottery tickets in Virginia.
In 1820, P.J. and M.J. Cohen were charged with selling tickets for the National Lottery in Virginia. The two defendants were convicted and ordered to pay a $100 fine.
After their convictions in state court, the Cohens appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The State of Virginia moved to dismiss the appeal, arguing that the U.S. Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.
Issue and Holding:
Does the U.S. Constitution give the U.S. Supreme Court the power to review a decision of the Virginia Supreme Court involving federal law? Yes.
The State of Virginia’s motion is denied. With regard to the merits of the Cohens’ convictions, the convictions are affirmed.
Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:
The U.S. Supreme Court has the power to review decisions of State courts in matters involving the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
The primary focus of the unanimous Court opinion, written by Chief Justice Marshall, involved the State of Virginia’s motion to dismiss the matter for lack of jurisdiction. The State of Virginia essentially argued that the Court lacked jurisdiction because a State was a party, and that the Supreme Court cannot review a decision from a State’s highest court. The Court addressed both arguments.
- State as a party has no relevance with regard to the Court’s jurisdiction.
First, the Court found that its power to review State court decisions does not hinge upon whether one of the parties is a State. The text of the U.S. Constitution gives the Supreme Court authority over “all cases” under the Constitution or laws of the United States. Thus, the text (and the spirit) of the Constitution grants the Supreme Court authority over all cases involving federal law regardless of the character of the parties. To find otherwise, stated the Court, would be to allow confusion as each State would be able to interpret and enforce (or not enforce) federal law in any manner they saw fit.
- The Court always has jurisdiction over State decisions involving federal law.
Second, in matters of the U.S. Constitution and federal law, the Court always has the power to review State court decisions. The Constitution provides that States are sovereign in some circumstances, yet relinquish sovereignty by necessity to the Union in other circumstances. In matters of federal law, a fair review of the text and history of the Constitution demonstrates that the Court was intended to review decisions involving federal law. The Supremacy Clause further supports that principle.
- On the merits of the case, the convictions are affirmed.
Upon determining that the Court has jurisdiction, the Court went on to find that Virginia’s lottery statute was a local matter. Virginia was correct that the Cohens violated Virginia’s statute.
This case is best known for the holding that the U.S. Supreme Court has jurisdiction to review the decisions of State courts in criminal matters involving federal law.