• Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Supreme Court’s broad construction of the contracts clause enhanced protection from legislative interference for vested rights in private property. For the first time, moreover, the Court declared that a state law was unconstitutional and therefore invalid.

In 1795 the Georgia legislature granted thirty-five million acres of prime cotton land along the Yazoo River to speculative companies. The price was 1.5 cents per acre. Informed observers believed that members of the legislature had been influenced by bribes and personal interests. The following year, a newly elected legislature rescinded the Yazoo grant and invalidated all property rights deriving from it. Meanwhile, however, third parties in several states had already purchased much of the land. One such person, Robert Fletcher, sued John Peck in federal court, with the goal of having the title restored.Contracts clause;Fletcher v. Peck[Fletcher v. Peck]Property rights;Fletcher v. Peck[Fletcher v. Peck]

In one of its most unpopular decisions, the Supreme Court found that the rescinding statute had violated the contract clause. Speaking for the Court, Chief Justice John MarshallMarshall, John;Fletcher v. Peck[Fletcher v. Peck] broadly defined a contract as “a compact between two or more parties,” which included a grant made by a state legislature. Possible corruption in the motives of the legislators was a political question and not germane to the contract’s validity. Marshall wrote that the offending statute was prohibited “either by the general principles which are common to our free institutions, or by the particular provisions of the Constitution.” Justice William Johnson’s concurrence relied solely on the vested law and higher law concept, without reference to the constitutional text.[case]Fletcher v. Peck[Fletcher v. Peck]

Contracts clause

Dartmouth College v. Woodward

Ex post facto laws

Natural law

Property rights

Categories: History