Cohens v. Virginia

19 U.S. (6 Wheat.) 264 (1821)



U.S. Const. art. III, § 2 defines the extent of the judicial power of the United States. Jurisdiction is given to the Courts of the Union in two classes of cases. In the first, their jurisdiction depends on the character of the cause, whoever may be the parties. This class comprehends 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. In the second class, the jurisdiction depends entirely on the character of the parties. In this are comprehended controversies between two or more States, between a State and citizens of another State, and between a State and foreign States, citizens or subjects.


Plaintiffs filed writ of error appealing the judgment of lower court convicting them of violating Virginia's gaming laws. Plaintiffs legally purchased lottery tickets in Washington, D.C. and sold them in Virginia.


Can the plaintiffs be punished in Virginia for selling lottery tickets legally purchased in Washington?




The Court found the writ of error was governed by the Constitution, and judicial power extended to all cases arising under the Constitution without respect to the parties. The Court found the Constitution granted it jurisdiction and authority to hear the controversy between a gaming law enacted by Congress, and a state law prohibiting the sale of lottery tickets. The Constitution further granted the federal judiciary with supervisory power over state court judgments. Lastly, the Court found that Congress enacted the lottery statute according to its exclusive legislative power over Washington, D.C. intending it to be local legislation. Since the lottery statute was not enacted as a law of the United States, it did not preempt state statutes.

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