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Calder v. Bull


CALDER V. BULL, 3 U.S. 386 (1798). The Connecticut legislature, which also served as the state's highest appellate court, set aside a probate court decision involving a will and ordered a new trial, which upheld the will and awarded the property in question to the Bulls. The Calders, who had initially been awarded the property, claimed this amounted to an ex post facto law, which was prohibited by the U.S. Constitution. The Supreme Court held that an ex post facto law could only apply to laws that retroactively criminalized previously legal behavior, not to a case involving property or in a civil matter. Although agreeing on the outcome, Justices Samuel Chase and James Iredell set out quite different views of the role of the judiciary and of the basis for judicial review.

Chase argued that legislative acts were limited by the "great first principles of the social compact," and that an act that violated these principles "cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority." Chase implied that courts might overturn legislative decisions that violated basic republican principles. For example, the Court could overturn a state law "that takes property from A, and gives it to B." Having set out these examples, Chase found that this act of the Connecticut legislature did not in fact violate these principles.

Iredell, however, argued that the courts could not declare a statute "void, merely because it is … contrary to the principles of natural justice." Rather, Iredell argued for a strict textual reading of the Constitution that would give judges little latitude in deciding cases and prevent them from overturning acts of the legislature because they denied fundamental rights or violated natural law.


See alsoJudicial Review .

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