ArtIII.S1.6.5 Supreme Court Review of State Court Interpretations of Federal Law

Article III, Section 1:

The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behaviour, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.

As a substantive matter, state courts interpreting federal law are bound by applicable federal court precedents and subject to review by the Supreme Court. This rule dates back to Section 25 of Judiciary Act of 1789, which authorized the U.S. Supreme Court to review certain decisions of the states’ highest courts involving the construction of the Constitution, a treaty, or federal law.1

The Supreme Court considered a constitutional challenge to Section 25 in the 1816 case Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee.2 In that case, litigation involving title to land in Virginia was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that a treaty between the United States and Britain controlled the dispute. On remand, the Virginia state court of appeals refused to honor the Supreme Court’s judgment, opining that “the appellate power of the supreme court of the United States does not extend to this court under a sound construction of the constitution of the United States,” and that Section 25 was unconstitutional in that it “extends the appellate jurisdiction of the supreme court to this court.” 3 The case returned to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Section 25. Justice Joseph Story’s majority opinion emphasized that the Constitution vests in the Supreme Court the authority to hear all cases subject to the federal judicial power, explaining that “the constitution not only contemplated, but meant to provide for cases within the scope of the judicial power of the United States, which might yet depend before state tribunals.” 4

Similarly, in Cohens v. Virginia, individuals convicted under Virginia state criminal law for selling lottery tickets argued that their convictions violated federal law. On appeal to the Supreme Court, the state argued that while the Virginia courts were constitutionally obliged to prefer federal law over conflicting state laws, the state courts, as courts of a separate sovereign, were bound only by their own interpretation of the supreme law.5 The state further contended that the judicial power of the United States extended only to cases brought in the first instance in federal court. Chief Justice John Marshall’s majority opinion rejected this narrow interpretation, holding that the words of the Constitution “give to the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction in all cases arising under the constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States. The words are broad enough to comprehend all cases of this description, in whatever Court they may be decided.” 6

1 Stat. 73, 85. The current statute authorizing Supreme Court review of “[f]inal judgments or decrees rendered by the highest court of a State” in cases arising under the Constitution or federal laws or treaties is 28 U.S.C. § 1257. back
14 U.S. 304 (1816). back
Id. at 323–24. back
Id. at 342. See also id. at 351 ( “[T]he appellate power of the United States does extend to cases pending in the state courts; and . . . the 25th section of the judiciary act, which authorizes the exercise of this jurisdiction in the specified cases, by a writ of error, is supported by the letter and spirit of the constitution.” ). back
19 U.S. 264 (1821). back
Id. at 416. See also Ableman v. Booth, 62 U.S. (21 How.) 506 (1859); Williams v. Bruffy, 102 U.S. 248 (1880). back