Van Horne's Lessee v. Dorrance 2 Dallas 304 (1795)

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VAN HORNE'S LESSEE v. DORRANCE 2 Dallas 304 (1795)

Van Horne's Lessee, a circuit court case in the District of Pennsylvania, is memorable because of Justice william paterson's charge to the jury, instructing them that a state act unconstitutionally violated property rights. His opinion can be read as a roadmap of the direction that constitutional law would take as a law of judicially implied limitations on legislation adversely affecting property rights. In lucid nonlegal language, Paterson spelled out judicial presuppositions and constitutional principles that were to become orthodox for well over a century. In discussing "What is a Constitution?" and analyzing the legislature's authority to pass its act divesting land titles, Paterson joined together the doctrines of judicial review and vested rights. Prefiguring fletcher v. peck (1810) as well as the basic principle of marbury v. madison (1803), Paterson invoked the higher law concept and the contract clause against the statute.

Having declared that "it will be the duty of the Court to adhere to the constitution, and to declare the act null and void" if it exceeds the legislature's authority, Paterson discoursed on the relationship between fundamental law and the rights of property. He found such rights inalienable, their preservation a primary object of "the social compact." Property, when vested, must be secure. For the government to take property without providing a recompense in value would be "an outrage," a "dangerous" display of unlimited authority, "a monster in legislation" that would "shock all mankind." To divest a citizen of his freehold even with compensation was a necessary "despotic" power to be exercised only in "cases of the first necessity." The reason was that the Constitution "encircles, and renders [a vested right] an holy thing.… It is a right not exgratia from the legislature, but ex debito from the constitution. It is sacred.…"

Paterson informed the jury that courts must hold unconstitutional legislative encroachments on sacred property rights even in the absence of a written constitutional limitation on legislative powers. He relied on "reason, justice, and moral recitude," "the principles of social alliance in every free government," and the "letter and spirit of the constitution." The letter, in this instance, turned out to be the clause in Article I, section 10, of the Constitution, prohibiting a state law impairing the obligation of acontract. Paterson assumed that the contract clause extended to contracts to which the state was a party; that a previous state act recognizing a property interest of the original claimant was a contract within the protection of the contract clause; and that the divestiture of the titles, even with compensation, violated the clause. Paterson's charge was a textbook exposition of constitutionalism, higher law limitations, judicial review, courts as bulwarks of property rights, and the contract clause.

Leonard W. Levy
(1986)