Cohens v. Virginia

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In Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. 264, 6 Wheat. 264, 426, 428, 5 L. Ed. 257 (1821), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a conviction under Virginia law despite the existence of a contrary federal law for the District of Columbia. This ruling established that the Constitution grants the Court supervisory power over judgments rendered in state court.[1] In other words, this established the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to hear appeals of state criminal proceedings.

In a victory for federalism, The Court held that Congress "has no general right to punish murder committed within any of the States," and that it is "clear ... that congress cannot punish felonies generally."

Plaintiffs had appealed a conviction for violating Virginia's laws against gambling. They had lawfully purchased lottery tickets in Washington, D.C., but sold them unlawfully in Virginia.

The Court first held that it had jurisdiction to consider the appeal because it was a conflict between a gambling law enacted by Congress and one passed by a state. Finally, the Court held that Congress enacted its gambling law as local legislation pursuant to its exclusive legislative power over Washington, D.C., and thus it was not passed as a law of the United States entitling it to preemption of state law under the Supremacy Clause.

The Court concluded that the law passed by Congress applied only to Washington, D.C., and the Virginia conviction was upheld.

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court. This was a typical expansion of federal court power in dictum while preserving the status quo in the actual ruling of the case.

Also as dictum, Chief Justice Marshall held that the Eleventh Amendment was directed only to the clause of Article III permitting Congress to vest the federal courts with jurisdiction over controversies "between a state and citizens of another state" and not to the clause relating to "all cases, in law and equity, arising under this Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made, or which shall be made, under their authority."[2] This narrow view of the protections offered by the Eleventh Amendment was rejected long ago.[3]


  2. Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.), 264, 383, 392, 407 (1821).
  3. See Hans v. Louisiana, 134 U.S. 1 (1890).