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Cohens v. Virginia

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Significance: Chief Justice John Marshall used a minor dispute over the sale of lottery tickets in Virginia to assert the Supreme Court's jurisdiction over state court decisions.


After Congress authorized a lottery sale for the District of Columbia, a Virginia court fined the Cohen brothers one hundred dollars for selling tickets in Virginia in violation of a state statute. The two brothers appealed their fine to the Supreme Court, asserting that the Virginia court had acted unconstitutionally. Virginia claimed immunity from review, based on the Eleventh Amendment as well as principles of state sovereignty. Speaking for a unanimous Court, John Marshall made a narrow ruling in favor of Virginia, with the rationale that Congress had not intended lottery tickets to be sold in states where they were illegal. Marshall's opinion in Cohens v. Virginia is memorable because of its vigorous defense of the Court's broad jurisdiction and the principle of national supremacy. In regard to states’ rights, Marshall argued that the states had surrendered much of their sovereignty when they joined a national union. Taking a narrow reading of the Eleventh Amendment, Marshall wrote that the amendment did not apply when the sole purpose of a suit was to inquire about whether a state court had violated the U.S. Constitution or federal law. Marshall's lengthy opinion presented a sweeping interpretation of the Court's appellate jurisdiction over all state court decisions involving issues of national authority. Defenders of states’ rights, including Thomas Jefferson, denounced Cohens as an extreme step toward the consolidation of federal power.