Cohens v. Virginia

19 U.S. 264, 5 L. Ed. 257, 1821 U.S. LEXIS 362, 6 Wheat. 264

Supreme Court of the United States

Whether the Supreme Court of the United States had jurisdiction to hear a controversy between a gaming law enacted by Congress and a state law prohibiting the sale of lottery tickets.




LexisNexis Headnote 15: Jurisdiction, Jurisdictional Sources The United States Supreme Court will not take jurisdiction if it should not: but it is equally true, that it must take jurisdiction if it should. The judiciary cannot, as the legislature may, avoid a measure because it approaches the confines of the constitution. The Supreme Court cannot pass it by because it is doubtful. With whatever doubts, with whatever difficulties, a case may be attended, the Supreme Court must decide it, if it be brought before the Court. The Supreme Court has no more right to decline the exercise of jurisdiction which is given, than to usurp that which is not given. The one or the other would be treason to the constitution.


A Virginia court found that a Virginia statute prohibiting the sale of lottery tickets was valid, despite a statute passed by Congress authorizing the sale of lottery tickets in Washington, D.C. Plaintiffs, who legally purchased lottery tickets in Washington, D.C. and sold them in Virginia, were convicted for violating Virginia's gaming laws and appealed.


The United States Supreme Court affirmed the judgment, finding that the Constitution granted it jurisdiction to hear the controversy, and the lottery statute passed by Congress applied to Washington, D.C. only. 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 Constitution granted the Supreme Court jurisdiction and authority to hear the controversy and granted the federal judiciary supervisory power over state court judgments. 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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