There was a dispute over a will.
probate court decree had refused to approve a will.
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.
There was a Connecticut law that allowed the probate court to be
Wording from the case itself
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
When Morrison died, his will stated that Mr. and Mrs. Bull were
to be the beneficiaries.
Due to some problems with the will, the Bulls were denied an
inheritance by a Connecticut Probate Court.
Instead, the Court gave the money to a guy named Calder.
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
The Bulls persuaded the Connecticut
legislature to change the law, which enabled them to
successfully appeal the case.
On appeal, the Court reversed and
gave the inheritance to the Bulls.
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
The US Supreme Court found for the Bulls.
US Supreme Court found that the Connecticut legislation was not
an ex post facto law.
The Court distinguished criminal rights from private rights,
arguing that restrictions against ex post facto laws were not
designed to protect citizens' contract rights.
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
Topics of the Case
Both Justices agreed that the legislatures action was not an ex
post facto law.
But they disagreed over the appropriate role of natural law in
Justice Chase unlimited power is not was the People agreed to
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
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.
An ACT of the Legislature contrary
to the great first principles of the
cannot be considered a
rightful exercise of legislative authority.
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.
law punishes an innocent action
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.
Chase upheld the legislatures action, however, on the ground
that it impaired no vested right.
Justice Iredell [Dissent]
Does not believe that any court of justice would possess a power
to declare a legislature act against natural justice be void.
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
If any act of Congress, or of the Legislature of a state,
violates those constitutional provisions, it is unquestionably
If Law is within States Constitution, Then not void
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
If the legislature pursue the authority delegated to them, their
acts are valid.
In such circumstances, they exercise the discretion vested in
them by the people.
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.
The written Constitution is authority against the position that
courts may call on principles of natural justice.