Cohens v. Virginia

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Cohens v. Commonwealth of Virginia
Seal of the United States Supreme Court
Decided March 3, 1821
Full case nameP.J. Cohen and M.J. Cohen v. Commonwealth of Virginia
Citations19 U.S. 264 (more)
6 Wheat. 264; 5 L. Ed. 257; 1821 U.S. LEXIS 362
State laws in opposition to national laws are void. The U.S. Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction for any U.S. case and final say.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Marshall
Associate Justices
Bushrod Washington · William Johnson
H. Brockholst Livingston · Thomas Todd
Gabriel Duvall · Joseph Story
Case opinion
MajorityMarshall, joined by unanimous

Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821),[1] is a landmark case by the United States Supreme Court most notable for the Court's assertion of its power to review state supreme court decisions in criminal law matters when the defendant claims that their Constitutional rights have been violated. The Court had previously asserted a similar jurisdiction over civil cases involving American parties.

The case involved a prominent Baltimore banking family, a U.S. Senator and two U.S. Representatives as attorneys for the opposing sides, and was centered on two defendants, Mendes J. Cohen and Philip J. Cohen, who would later rise to the positions of U.S. Postmaster (Philip), and U.S. Army Colonel and Maryland Delegate (Mendes).[2][3]


1818 portrait of Mendes J. Cohen by artist Joseph Wood. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Congress passed a bill to establish a National Lottery, to raise money for the District of Columbia, and which was conducted by the municipal government.[2] Virginia, meanwhile, had created its own state lotteries, and passed a law to prohibit the sale of out-of-state lottery tickets.[2]

Philip and Mendes Cohen were brothers who managed the Norfolk branch of Cohens Lottery and Exchange Office of Baltimore;[2] the Cohen firm was a leading vendor of lottery tickets in the United States, through its offices in New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Norfolk, and nationwide through the mail.[2] The firm had a strong reputation in an otherwise unsavory field, and was known for quick payouts to winners, which led to later success in the insurance and banking fields;[2] the firm had been established in 1821 by another brother, Jacob I. Cohen, Jr. (a future president of the Baltimore City Council), who had emigrated from Bavaria, and brought each of his five brothers into the firm.[2][3]

On June 1, 1820, Philip and Mendes Cohen were charged by authorities in Norfolk with selling tickets for the National Lottery in Virginia;[2] the brothers were convicted in local court and fined $100.[2]

The issue was significant as "lotteries were one of the chief means by which governments raised capital in the" early 19th century,[2] it would challenge the "free flow of commerce" embodied in the U.S. Constitution and could have emboldened other states to challenge the sale of National Lottery tickets elsewhere.[2]

The Cohens hired two of the country's top lawyers for their appeal: U.S. Senator William Pinkney of Maryland and recently retired U.S. Representative David A. Ogden of New York.[2] Pinkney was an acquaintance of the Cohen family and a strong proponent of the necessary and proper clause and the doctrine of sovereign immunity, and he organized a public relations campaign on behalf of the federal government's powers for this case.[2]

Judicial history[edit]

The state courts found that Virginia law prohibiting lotteries could be enforced, notwithstanding the act of Congress which authorized the D.C. lottery. The Cohens appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that their conduct was protected by the Act of Congress authorizing the D.C. lottery.

The case actually produced two United Supreme Court opinions, published together; the first opinion, containing the major rulings of constitutional and historical significance, concerned a motion to dismiss for purported lack of Supreme Court jurisdiction. This ruling was issued on March 2, 1821. Having resolved the significant jurisdictional issues, the next day the Court issued a relatively unremarkable opinion on the merits of the case construing a Congressional statute authorizing a lottery in the City of Washington, District of Columbia. (At this time the District of Columbia consisted of two cities, the other being Alexandria, which in the 1840s was retroceded back to the State of Virginia, so that it could keep its role as a major slave market without tainting the national capital.)

The main issue in the case was the preliminary issue of whether the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear an appeal in a criminal case decided by the courts of the state of Virginia, it was argued by Virginia that the Constitution does not give the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction over criminal judgments by the state courts. Virginia also argued that the Constitution does not give the Supreme Court appellate jurisdiction over cases in which a state is a party. In effect, Virginia argued that its decision was final and unreviewable by the federal courts, even though the decision involved the interpretation and application of an act of Congress. Virginia thereby asserted that it had an unreviewable right to interpret and apply (or not apply) federal law as it saw fit.

The Supreme Court relied on Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution, which provides that the Supreme Court shall have jurisdiction in "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." The Court found that the Constitution provides no exceptions to this grant of jurisdiction for cases arising in the state courts or for cases in which a state is a party. Therefore, under the language of the Constitution, all cases arising under federal law are within the Constitution's grant of appellate jurisdiction; this conclusion was reinforced, said the Court, by the Supremacy Clause of Article VI, which makes federal law superior to state law.

The Court stated that if state court decisions involving federal law were unreviewable by the federal courts, then each state could prevent the federal government from executing federal laws within that state, giving each state veto power over federal law; the Court found that this was not consistent with the language and intent of the Constitution, including the explicit grant of judicial power to the federal courts. The Court stated: "There is certainly nothing in the circumstances under which our Constitution was formed, nothing in the history of the times, which would justify the opinion that the confidence reposed in the States was so implicit as to leave in them and their tribunals the power of resisting or defeating, in the form of law, the legitimate measures of the Union." Therefore, the Court said, the framers of the Constitution did "confer on the judicial department the power of construing the Constitution and laws of the Union in every case, in the last resort, and of preserving them from all violation from every quarter, so far as judicial decisions can preserve them."

The Court also said that if state court decisions involving federal law were unreviewable by federal courts, then there would be as many interpretations of federal law as there are states. Quoting The Federalist No. 80, the Court found that the Constitution was not intended to create "a hydra in government from which nothing but contradiction and confusion can proceed." Rather, relying on The Federalist No. 82, the Court found that the framers intended for the Supreme Court to have appellate jurisdiction over state court cases involving federal law.

Accordingly, the Supreme Court found that there should be no restriction or limitation on the Constitution's plain language granting it appellate jurisdiction over all cases arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States; the Court therefore had jurisdiction over the appeal from the Virginia courts.

Having found that it had jurisdiction, the Supreme Court upheld the Cohens' convictions; the Court found that Congress did not intend to authorize the sale of lottery tickets outside of the District of Columbia. Therefore, there was no conflict between the act of Congress authorizing a lottery in D.C. and Virginia's statute prohibiting lotteries in Virginia.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cohens v. Virginia, 19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821).
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Jean Edward Smith, John Marshall: Definer Of A Nation, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1996, pp. 456-459 [1]
  3. ^ a b Cohen, The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia

External links[edit]