Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee

Following is the case brief for Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 14 U.S. 304 (1816)

Case Summary of Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee:

  • The State of Virginia seized land from a British loyalist, Lord Fairfax, during the Revolutionary War.  It then assigned part of that land to Hunter.
  • After the war, the U.S. made a treaty with Great Britain that protected the lands owned by British loyalists like Fairfax.
  • Martin, Fairfax’s nephew and heir, sued for recovery of the tract of land given to Hunter.
  • Virginia’s highest court ultimately held that Hunter was the proper owner of the tract.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed, holding that the tract belonged to Martin under the treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain, and that Virginia could not refuse to obey a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Lord Fairfax, a British loyalist, owned land in the State of Virginia.  During the Revolutionary War, Virginia created laws to take the land owned by loyalists.  It seized Fairfax’s land and gave a tract of it to Hunter.

After the war, the United States entered into a treaty with Great Britain.  The treaty guaranteed that land in the U.S. owned by British loyalists would be protected from seizure.  Martin, Fairfax’s nephew and heir to his estate, sued in Virginia state court to take back the tract of land given to Hunter.

Procedural History:

  • The Virginia trial court found for Martin.
  • On appeal, Virginia’s highest court, the Virginia Court of Appeals, found for Hunter. It upheld the confiscation laws passed in Virginia during the Revolutionary War even though they conflicted with the treaty signed by the U.S. after the war.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Virginia Court of Appeals decision.
  • The Virginia court, however, refused to obey the Supreme Court’s ruling. It found that the U.S. Supreme Court lacked the authority to reverse its decisions.
  • The case again came before the U.S. Supreme Court on writ of error.

Issue and Holding:

Does the U.S. Supreme Court have the power to review and overturn State court decisions regarding federal law and the U.S. ConstitutionYes.


The Virginia Court of Appeals decision is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The U.S. Supreme Court has the power to review and reverse decisions by State courts with regard to questions of federal law and the U.S. Constitution, and State courts must follow those decisions to ensure that the law is applied equally across all the States.


Article III, Section 2, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution gives the U.S. Supreme Court the authority to review a State court decision.  In addition, the Supremacy Clause, Article VI, Clause 2, of the U.S. Constitution provides that the Constitution, as well as federal laws and treaties made under its authority, are the supreme law of the land.  Therefore, State courts are bound to follow decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, and a federal treaty is superior to a State law.

In response to Virginia’s position that the sovereignty of a State court cannot be challenged by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, the Court reasoned that the country needs predictable, uniform application of the law through all the States.  Indeed, if every single State had the final say on what the U.S. Constitution meant within its borders, there could be as many interpretations of a law as there are States.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Johnson):

While we should be reluctant to assert authority over the States, this case requires that the U.S. Supreme Court assert its jurisdiction.


Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee is placed along with Marbury v. Madison as one of the most important early decisions that established the U.S. Supreme Court as the final word on federal law.

Student Resources:

Read the Court’s Full Opinion