State Legislation that Conflicts with the Provision of a United States Treaty is Void
This case was heard in the New York City Mayor’s Court in 1784, and was the most important of the numerous cases that arose out of the Trespass Act of 1783. Elizabeth Rutgers, widow of Harman Rutgers, 3rd., sought £8,000 in rent from Joshua Waddington, as agent of Benjamin Waddington and Evelyn Pierrepont. The two merchants had occupied her brewery under the authority of the British Commissary General during the British occupation of New York. The provisions of the Trespass Act (1873) provided Mrs. Rutgers with the basis for a recovery of rent during that period.
Egbert Benson represented Mrs. Rutgers and the defendants were represented by Alexander Hamilton, Brockholst Livingston and Morgan Lewis. Benson’s arguments focused on the provisions of the Trespass Act and the 1777 State Constitution that set up a Council of Revision, the legal body that reviewed all new legislation enacted by the New York State Legislature. Hamilton considered that the Trespass Act was inconsistent with the obligations of the United States under the 1783 Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, and was concerned that the Trespass Act would lead to the departure of thousands of Loyalists and negatively impact New York.
Mayor Duane delivered the Court’s decision on August 17, 1784, and found the defendants liable for rent during the period when they held the property under the order of the civilian commissary (September 1778 to April 1780) but not during the period when they had paid rent to the authorities under order of the British military command (May 1780 to March 1783). Mayor Duane recognized the law of nations as a branch of the common law that was continued under the provisions of the 1777 State Constitution.
The Rutgers case was the first to establish the principle that State legislation in conflict with the provision of a United States Treaty was void. It also set State precedent for the doctrine of judicial review that would be established in the Supreme Court of the United States in 1803 (Madison v. Marbury, 5 U.S.137)
Alexander Hamilton used his arguments relating to judicial review in the Rutgers case as the basis for Federalist Papers Nos. 22 and 78 in which he argued that, under the Constitution, the “interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the Courts” and that in the case of conflict “the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute.”
Second Circuit Committee on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution. Egbert Benson: First Chief Judge of the Second Circuit (1801-1802). New York, 1987.
by David A. Weinstein
Judicial Notice Issue 9