Calder v. Bull
Significance: While ruling that the ex post facto limitation did not apply to civil laws, the Supreme Court justices debated the concepts of judicial review and natural law.
The Connecticut legislature passed a resolution that granted a new hearing in a probate trial. The disappointed litigants, Calder and his wife, contended that the resolution was an ex post facto law, which was prohibited to the states by the U.S. Constitution. By a 4-0 vote, the Supreme Court concluded that the term “ex post facto” applied only to retroactive criminal laws and not to laws dealing with civil matters. After much controversy, the Court reaffirmed this definition in Collins v. Youngblood (1990). In Calder, the justices wrote seriatim opinions, discussing possible ways to decide the case. Justice Samuel Chase denied the “omnipotence” of the legislatures and asserted that “the very nature of our free Republican governments” will override and invalidate laws contrary to fundamental principles of “reason and justice.” Justice James Iredell answered that judges did not have any right to invalidate a statute simply because they might consider it “contrary to the principles of natural justice,” but he explicitly recognized the duty of the Court to strike down legislative acts that violate the Constitution. Beginning in the 1820's, the Court has assumed the validity of Iredell's theoretical perspective, but the natural law approach has sometimes reappeared, most often in the form of substantive due process.