Gelpcke v. Dubuque

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1 Wall. (68 U.S.) 175 (1864), argued 15 Dec. 1863, decided 11 Jan. 1864 by vote of 8 to 1; Swayne for the Court, Miller in dissent, Taney not participating. The competition of northern cities before the Civil War for rail traffic resulted in imprudent bond issues, with consequent defaults and repudiations. Dubuque, Iowa, promoters issued bonds in amounts that exceeded the debt limit specified in the state constitution. A reform-minded state supreme court reversed earlier holdings sustaining the validity of the bonds. The bondholders appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that federal courts, under Swift v. Tyson (1842), could construe state constitutions when state supreme court precedent was inconsistent. In Leffingwell v. Warren (1862), the Supreme Court had stated that it was obliged to follow the most recent state supreme court holdings construing state constitutions.

Yet in Gelpcke v. Dubuque, Justice Noah Swayne rejected the latest Iowa Supreme Court construction. Federal judges were not bound by state courts’ oscillations, Swayne asserted. “We shall never immolate truth, justice, and the law, because a State tribunal has erected the altar and decreed the sacrifice,” he wrote (pp. 206–207). Justice Samuel Freeman Miller (an Iowan) dissented, arguing that only state judges should have final authority to construe the state's constitution and laws.

Investors, law writers, and legal academics praised Gelpcke. Critics charged that it deepened animosities between federal judges and the elected state courts and that it throttled urban development. In its disdain for state judicial authority, Gelpcke was a precursor of substantive due process.

Harold M. Hyman

Subjects: Law.

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