The Problem of Enforcement: Virginia v. West Virginia.

A very important issue in interstate litigation is the enforce- ment of the Court’s decree, once it has been entered. In some types of suits, this issue may not arise, and if it does, it may be easily met. Thus, a judgment putting a state in possession of disputed territory is ordinarily self-executing. But if the losing state should oppose execution, refractory state officials, as individuals, would be liable to civil suits or criminal prosecutions in the federal courts. Likewise an injunction may be enforced against state officials as individuals by civil or criminal proceedings. Those judgments, on the other hand, that require a state in its governmental capacity to perform some positive act present the issue of enforcement in more serious form. The issue arose directly in the long and much litigated case between Virginia and West Virginia over the proportion of the state debt of original Virginia owed by West Virginia after its separate admission to the Union under a compact which provided that West Virginia assume a share of the debt.

The suit was begun in 1906, and a judgment was rendered against West Virginia in 1915. Finally, in 1917, Virginia filed a suit against West Virginia to show cause why, in default of payment of the judgment, an order should not be entered directing the West Virginia legislature to levy a tax for payment of the judgment.1068 Starting with the rule that the judicial power essentially involves the right to enforce the results of its exertion,1069 the Court proceeded to hold that it applied with the same force to states as to other litigants1070 and to consider appropriate remedies for the enforcement of its authority. In this connection, Chief Justice White declared: “As the powers to render the judgment and to enforce it arise from the grant in the Constitution on that subject, looked at from a generic point of view, both are federal powers and, comprehensively considered, are sustained by every authority of the Federal Government, judicial, legislative, or executive, which may be appropriately exercised.”1071 The Court, however, left open the question of its power to enforce the judgment under existing legislation and scheduled the case for reargument at the next term. Before that could occur, West Virginia accepted the Court’s judgment and entered into an agreement with Virginia to pay it.1072


The various decisions in Virginia v. West Virginia are found at 206 U.S. 290 (1907); 209 U.S. 514 (1908); 220 U.S. 1 (1911); 222 U.S. 17 (1911); 231 U.S. 89 (1913); 234 U.S. 117 (1914); 238 U.S. 202 (1915); 241 U.S. 531 (1916); 246 U.S. 565 (1918). back
246 U.S. at 591. back
246 U.S. at 600. back
246 U.S. at 601. back