Murdock v. Memphis

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20 Wall. (87 U.S.) 590 (1875), argued 21 Jan. and 2 Apr. 1873, decided 11 Jan. 1875 by vote of 5 to 3; Miller for the Court, Bradley, Clifford, and Swayne in dissent, Waite not participating. Section 25 of the 1789 Judiciary Act, the original grant of appellate authority to the Supreme Court over federal question cases from the state courts, excluded questions of state law from review by the Court. This provision established a basic principle of judicial federalism: state courts, not the Supreme Court, have final and unreviewable authority over the interpretation of the state constitutions and laws. In an 1867 reenactment of section 25, Congress omitted the proviso containing this exclusion. Murdock v. Memphis presented questions of whether Congress thereby conferred appellate jurisdiction on the Supreme Court over questions of state law, and, if it did, whether such a breach of the bulkheads of federalism was constitutional.

Justice Samuel F. Miller did not reach the second question because he decided the first in the negative. Expressing annoyance at the opacity of congressional intent in the 1867 reenactment, Miller held that such a far-reaching revision of the federal system would require at least a clear statement of Congress's determination to do so. Such a “radical and hazardous change of a policy vital … to the independence of the State courts,” wrote Miller, could not be inferred from the silences of Congress (p. 630). Thus Murdock v. Memphis confirmed the modern foundations of American judicial federalism.

William M. Wiecek

Subjects: Law.

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