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Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 

Supreme Court of the United States






The Role of the Supreme Court in the Constitutional Order




The Sources of Judicial Decisions

Quick Notes

Justice Chase

o         There is an unwritten Constitution, consisting of principles of natural law, which is enforceable as against the states even though it cannot be found in the Constitution.


Justice Iredell

o         The written Constitution is authority against the position that courts may call on principles of natural justice.

Book Name

Constitutional Law : Stone, Seidman, Sunstein, Tushnet.  ISBN:  978-0-7355-7719-0.



o         Whether the Connecticut legislature Act to change the law, which enabled them to the Bulls to appeal the case was valid?  Yes,



Probate Ct.

o         Bulls were denied inheritance and money was give to Calder.

S.Ct  Ct.

o         Calder somehow persuaded the Connecticut Legislature to that allowed them to appeal after the statute of limitations has run.

o         Probate Courts decision was reversed.

o         Calder appealed.


o         Affirmed legislatures action on the grounds that it did not impair a vested right.




Key Phrases


Pl Calder

Df Bull

Party Description

o         There was a dispute over a will.

o         A probate court decree had refused to approve a will.

o         The persons who were the beneficiaries of that will had the judgment set aside and a new hearing was granted, at which the will was approved.

o         There was a Connecticut law that allowed the probate court to be set aside.


Wording from the case itself

o         The Legislature of Connecticut, on the 2d Thursday of May 1795, passed a resolution or law, which, for the reasons assigned, set aside a decree of the court of Probate for Harford, on the 21st of March 1793, which decreed disapproved of the will of Normand Morrison (the grandson) made the 21st of August 1779, and refused to record the said will; and granted a new hearing by the said Court of Probate, with liberty of appeal therefrom, in six months.

Actual Story

o         When Morrison died, his will stated that Mr. and Mrs. Bull were to be the beneficiaries.

o         Due to some problems with the will, the Bulls were denied an inheritance by a Connecticut Probate Court.

o    Instead, the Court gave the money to a guy named Calder.

o         The Bulls attempted to appeal the decision more than a year and a half later, but they found that under State law, the Statute of Limitations for filing an appeal was 18 months, so they lost their chance to appeal.

o         The Bulls persuaded the Connecticut legislature to change the law, which enabled them to successfully appeal the case.

o         On appeal, the Court reversed and gave the inheritance to the Bulls. Calder appealed.

o    Calder argued that the Connecticut legislation a violation of Article 1, Section 10 of the Constitution, which prohibits ex post facto laws.

  Ex post facto means that the act took place before the law changed, and so the act can't be judged by the new law.

  In this case, Calder argued that the principle of ex post facto meant that even if Connecticut changed the Statute of Limitations, the courts couldn't retroactively apply it to the Bull's case.

o         The US Supreme Court found for the Bulls.

o    US Supreme Court found that the Connecticut legislation was not an ex post facto law.

o    The Court distinguished criminal rights from private rights, arguing that restrictions against ex post facto laws were not designed to protect citizens' contract rights.

o    The Court found that while all ex post facto laws are retrospective, all retrospective laws are not necessarily ex post facto. Even "vested" property rights are subject to retroactive laws.

Topics of the Case

o         Both Justices agreed that the legislatures action was not an ex post facto law.

o         But they disagreed over the appropriate role of natural law in constitutional interpretation.


Justice Chase unlimited power is not was the People agreed to

o         I cannot subscribe to the omnipotence [unlimited power] of a State Legislature, or that it is absolute and without control; although its authority should not be expressly restrained by the Constitution, or fundamental law, of the State.

People erected the Constitution

o         The people of the United States erected their Constitutions, or forms of government, to establish justice, to promote the general welfare, to secure the blessings of liberty; and to protect their persons and property from violence.

Social Compact

o         An ACT of the Legislature contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority.

o         The obligation of a law in governments established on express compact, and on republican principles, must be determined by the nature of the power, on which it is founded.

A law punishes an innocent action

o         A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it.


o         Chase upheld the legislatures action, however, on the ground that it impaired no vested right.


Justice Iredell [Dissent]

o         Does not believe that any court of justice would possess a power to declare a legislature act against natural justice be void.

o         It has been the policy of all American states, and of the people of the US, to define the objects of the legislative power and to restrain its exercise.

If violates Constitution, then unquestionably void

o         If any act of Congress, or of the Legislature of a state, violates those constitutional provisions, it is unquestionably void.

If Law is within States Constitution, Then not void

o         If, on the other hand, the Legislature of the Union, or the Legislature of any member of the Union, shall pass a law, within the general scope of their constitutional power, the Court cannot pronounce it to be void, merely because it is, in their judgment, contrary to the principles of natural justice

o         If the legislature pursue the authority delegated to them, their acts are valid.

o         In such circumstances, they exercise the discretion vested in them by the people.


Book Notes


Justice Chase

o         There is an unwritten Constitution, consisting of principles of natural law, which is enforceable as against the states even though it cannot be found in the Constitution.


Justice Iredell

o         The written Constitution is authority against the position that courts may call on principles of natural justice.






Ex Post Facto Clause > General Overview

o         The U.S. Const. art. 1, 9 prohibits the Legislature of the United States from passing any ex post facto law; and the U.S. Const. art. 1, 10, lays several restrictions on the authority of the legislatures of the several states; and, among them, that no state shall pass any ex post facto law.


Retrospective Operation

o         A distinction exists between ex post facto laws, and retrospective laws. Every ex post facto law must necessarily be retrospective; but every retrospective law is not an ex post facto law. Only the former are prohibited. Every law that takes away or impairs rights vested agreeably to existing laws, is retrospective, and is generally unjust, and may be oppressive; and it is a good general rule, that a law should have no retrospect. But there are cases in which laws may justly, and for the benefit of the community and individuals relate to a time antecedent to their commencement; as statutes of oblivion, or of pardon. They are certainly retrospective and literally both concerning and after the facts committed.


Constitutional Law > State Constitutional Operation

o         The U.S. Supreme Court has no jurisdiction to determine that any law of any state legislature, contrary to the constitution of such state, is void. Further, if the U.S. Supreme Court had such jurisdiction, that the resolution (or law) in question, is contrary to the charter of the state, or its constitution, the courts of the state are the proper tribunals to decide, whether laws, contrary to the constitution thereof, are void


Class Notes