HistoricalCalder v. Bull: The Ex Post Facto Clause
In Calder v. Bull, 3 U.S. 386 (1798), the U.S. Supreme Court first interpreted the ex post facto clause of the United States Constitution. The justices held that the clause only applies to certain criminal acts.
The Facts of Calder v. Bull
Calder v. Bull centered around Caleb Bull and his wife, the stated beneficiaries in the will of Norman Morrison when they were denied an inheritance by a Connecticut probate court. The court also rejected the Bull’s appeal because it was not made within 18 months of the original ruling, as required under Connecticut law. Thereafter, the Connecticut legislature removed the restriction at the Bull’s request. On appeal, the court ruled in favor of the Bulls. Calder, who had initially received the inheritance, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging that the law passed by the Connecticut legislature that granted the new hearing was an ex post facto law, prohibited by the Constitution of the United States.
The Legal Background
Article 1, Section 9 and Section 10, of the U.S. Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws. The Latin phrase for “from a thing done afterward” refers to laws that apply retroactively. Section 9 prohibits the federal legislature from passing an ex post facto. Meanwhile, Section 10 states:
No state shall enter into any treaty, alliance, or confederation; grant letters of marque and reprisal; coin money; emit bills of credit; make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts; pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts, or grant any title of nobility.
The Court’s Decision
In Calder v. Bull, the Supreme Court ultimately concluded that the Connecticut statute was not an ex post facto law. In his opinion, Justice Samuel Chase clarified that the definition of ex post facto laws is fairly technical. “Every ex post facto law must necessarily be retrospective; but every retrospective law is not an ex post facto law,” he noted.
Justice William Paterson agreed. He wrote, “The words, ex post facto, when applied to a law, have a technical meaning, and in legal phraseology, refer to crimes, pains, and penalties.”
As further detailed by Justice Chase, only the following types of criminal laws should be considered ex post facto laws:
Every law that makes an action done before the passing of the law, and which was innocent when done, criminal; and punishes such action. 2d. Every law that aggravates a crime, makes it greater than it was, when committed. 3d. Every law that changes the punishment, and inflicts a greater punishment, than the law annexed to the crime, when committed. 4th. Every law that alters the legal rules of evidence, and receives less, or different, testimony, than the law required at the time of the commission of the offence, in order to convict the offender.
The Court also made another significant ruling on an issue of first impression. The justices held that the Court lacked the authority to determine whether an act of a state legislature violated that state’s constitution. As explained in Justice Chase’s opinion, “This court has no jurisdiction to determine that any law of any state Legislature, contrary to the Constitution of such state is void.”
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.