Bonham's Case 8 Coke 113b (1610)

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BONHAM'S CASE 8 Coke 113b (1610)

Although the issue in Bonham's Case concerned the power of the Royal College of Physicians to discipline nonmembers, its importance principally derives from its subsequent use as a precedent for judicial review and the subordination of legislation to a higher, constitutional law. Thomas Bonham, holder of a doctorate from Cambridge University, continued to practice in London after being refused permission by the College. Acting under powers conferred by royal charter and parliamentary statutes, the college authorities accordingly fined Bonham and secured his incarceration, thus triggering his suit for false imprisonment before the Court of Common Pleas.

Chief Justice Sir edward coke ruled in Bonham's favor. Although most of his numerous grounds were technical, Coke also criticized the statutory power of the college to be the original judge in a case to which it had itself been a party and concluded that the common law courts could "control" and render void those acts of Parliament that were "against Common Right, and Reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed."

Coke, nevertheless, invoked no judicial power to invalidate legislation or measure its constitutionality. He advised only that the statute be construed strictly, not nullified, thus prescribing a rule of statutory construction rather than a doctrine of constitutional superintendence. Coke assumed, moreover, that the defect in the law inhered not in unconstitutionality but in want of reasonableness and in impossibility of performance. The common law court intervened here as the handmaiden, not the antagonistic overseer, of Parliament, a brother court, and only for the purpose of recapturing a reasonableness that permeated the immutable laws sought by bench and Parliament alike.

Coke's use of evidence was also defective. Coke mis-quoted, for example, a major precedent, Tregor's Case (1334), by infusing into it language that it actually lacked to secure the desired result.

Two antagonistic streams of interpretation devolve from Bonham's Case. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 signaled the dominance of Parliament over court as well as crown and, thus, the demise of the spacious judicial interpretation of legislation advocated by Coke. In 1765 william blackstone definitively stated that no power could control unreasonable statutes, for such control subverted all government by setting the judiciary over the legislature. Although Coke's opinion in Bonham retained wide currency in the seventeenth century, its erosion began almost immediately and accelerated in the following century. In The Duchess of Hamilton's Case (1712), for example, Sir Thomas Powys insisted that judges must "strain hard" to avoid interpretations of statutes that would nullify them.

As the American Revolution approached, however, Bonham's Case evolved in the American colonies in the opposite direction as a fixed constitutional barrier against Parliament. Thus, in paxton ' scase (1761) james otis urged the Massachusetts Superior Court to impose a disabling interpretation on the British statute of 1662 that had codified writs of assistance. Although only private parties, not bench and Parliament, had directly clashed in Bonham's Case, Otis advanced it as a firm precedent for judicial evisceration of legislation. Coke questioned only the reasonableness of a statute; Otis and his followers challenged a law's constitutionality.

William J. Cuddihy


Corwin, Edward S. 1929 The "Higher Law" Background of American Constitutional Law. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Thorne, Samuel 1938 The Constitution and the Courts: A Reexamination of the Famous Case of Dr. Bonham. Pages 15–24 in Conyers Read (ed.), The Constitution Reconsidered. New York: Columbia University Press.