Summary of Calder v. Bull
Citation: 3 U.S. 386 (1798)
Relevant Facts: In 1793, the Probate Court in Hartford, Connecticut issued a decree disapproving of and refusing to record the will of Normand Morrison. In May of 1795, the Legislature of Connecticut passed a resolution setting aside that decree and providing reasons for their action. The Legislature also ordered that a new hearing be granted by the Probate Court, with liberty to appeal, within six months. The Probate Court held the new hearing in July, 1795, approved the will and ordered it recorded. The Superior Court of Hartford affirmed, and the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut, finding no errors, also affirmed. As eighteen months passed between the original judgment of the Probate Court, Caleb Bull and his wife (who stood to inherit under the disputed will) were barred any right of appeal as a new hearing was not authorized by statute. In the intervening time, Calder and his wife claimed the premises in question under another will (the will of a different N. Morrison, physician and grandfather of Normand Morrison). Calder claimed that the resolution of the Legislature of Connecticut was an ex post facto law, void under the Federal Constitution, and requesting that the Court strike down the Connecticut law.
Issue: Does the Connecticut resolution constitute an ex post facto law in violation of the Federal Constitution?
Holding: No, the Connecticut resolution affected only the judicial decree in this case. While the Justices each asserted partially different rationales for their decision, each agreed that the ex post facto prohibition only applies to criminal laws.
Opinions (Seriatim) : Justice Chase delivered his opinion, arguing that the authority of legislatures to act flows from the very nature of the social compact- authorizing those acts intended as consistent with the nature of the republic and forbidding contrary acts. The Constitutional prohibition of both bills of attainder and ex post facto laws followed from the unpleasant experience with Parliamentary exercise of both actions under British law. The Federal Constitution prohibits ex post facto laws, either by Congress or the legislatures of the several states. Justice Chase explained that ex post facto laws are not all laws that touch on past facts, rather, they concern punishment for acts already undertaken, a definition that excluded private rights (and civil remedies). He then recited examples of ex post fact laws, those creating crimes where none before existed, or enhancing punishment for acts already committed, but in each example the laws envisioned touch on criminal violations. In this case, the state law at issue affected private rights rather than criminal punishments related to facts that had passed, and therefore was not prohibited by the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws. Finally, Justice Chase explained that whether or not the Connecticut legislature had the authority to pass the law in question, the Supreme Court did not have the authority to review the propriety of their action. Justice Patterson, in his opinion, argued that the traditional definition of ex post fact law should be given to the Constitutional prohibition, limiting application to “crimes, pains, and penalties." While Justice Patterson would have preferred a constitutional limitation on all retrospective laws, he agreed that the case here was unaffected under the constitutional rule. Justice Iredell, in his separate opinion, pointed out that the Connecticut legislature was in the habit of passing legislation generally supervising the courts of that state. He also explained that in the American tradition legislatures have never possessed plenary power, instead bounded by written constitutions and generally restricted to exercising judicial authority consistent with the roles of other branches of government. While he agreed that the resolution here was not an ex post facto law (agreeing that prohibition only applied to criminal offenses) he suggested another grounds for his judgment; namely, that if the legislature acted in a judicial role then their action is not within the meaning of the Federal Constitution. Justice Cushing, in a very brief opinion, asserted the same rationale as Justice Iredell. He concluded that if the act here was judicial in nature the Constitution did not prohibit it, and if the act was legislative, it did not fit within the definition of an ex post facto law.
Conclusion: Under the Federal Constitution, the ex post facto prohibition only applies to criminal laws and does not extend to private (civil) rights.