Fletcher v. Peck – Case Brief Summary

Summary of Fletcher v. Peck, 10 U.S. 87, 6 Cranch 87, 3 L. Ed. 162 (1810).

Facts

In 1795, nearly every member of the Georgia state legislature was bribed to permit the sale of 30 million acres of land at less than two cents per acre for a total of $500,000. Only one member of the legislature voted against the legislation. The land was known as the Yazoo lands and eventually became the states of Alabama and Mississippi.

As a result of public outrage, most of the legislators lost the following election and the new legislature passed a statute in 1796 essentially nullifying the transactions. Those who had purchased the land refused to accept the return of their purchase price and much of the land was resold to bona fide purchasers at great profit.

Robert Fletcher (P) purchased 15,000 acres from John Peck (D) in 1803 for $3,000. Peck, in spite of the 1796 statute, had placed a covenant in the deed that stated that the title to the land had not been constitutionally impaired by any subsequent act of the state of Georgia. Fletcher sued Peck to establish the constitutionality of the 1796 act; either the act was constitutional and the contract was void, or the act was unconstitutional and Fletcher had clear title to the land.

Issue

  • Is a law that negates all property rights established under an earlier law unconstitutional?

Holding and Rule (Marshall)

  • Yes. A law that negates all property rights established under an earlier law is unconstitutional for violating the Contract Clause (Article I, Section 10) of the United States Constitution.

The court, while deploring the extensive corruption in the earlier state legislature, held that contracts signed under the original law must be accepted as valid. The motives of the legislators could not be considered by the Court and were not the responsibility of bona fide purchasers who were following the law. The court acknowledged that a legislature can repeal any act of a former legislature, but that this principle did not apply where the legislature sought to undo actions taken under the previous act while it was still valid.

The court held that the land grant was a type of contract, and therefore the Contract Clause (Art. I, sec. 10 of the U.S. Constitution) applied. The Contract Clause states: “No State shall … pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts, or grant any Title of Nobility.”

The court held that the 1796 law was an unconstitutional ex post facto law that sought to penalize bona fide purchasers for wrongs committed by those from whom they were purchasing.

Disposition

Judgment for Peck. The 1796 statute was unconstitutional and the sale to Fletcher conveyed clear title.

Concurrence (Johnson)

While states may not abrogate contracts, they may pass legislation that affects contracts.

See Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee for a constitutional law case brief involving an issue of ownership of real estate in which the Supreme Court held that it had appellate jurisdiction to review state court decisions involving federal law.


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