Fairfax's Devisee v. Hunter's Lessee

Case Date: 02/26/2021

Fairfax's Devisee v. Hunter's Lessee, 11 U.S. 603 (1813),[1] was a United States Supreme Court case arising out of the acquisition of Fairfax land in the Northern Neck of the state of Virginia by the family and associates of John Marshall, including Robert Morris.[2] Because of the complexity of the conveyances of Fairfax land prior to the acquisition, litigation was almost bound to arise even in the absence of questions arising under the Peace Treaty. The litigation began in 1791, in the Virginia District Court at Winchester. In 1793, parties arranged a test case with the object of having points of Virginia law settled, but in 1796 the Virginia House of Delegates intervened on behalf of those who held Fairfax land under conveyances by the state. (Hunter of "Hunter's Lessee" is one.)[3] The Marshall interests agreed to a compromise with the state, at Robert Morris' urging, as a sine qua non of obtaining loans from foreign sources. What was actually agreed to in the compromise was itself open to dispute. John Marshall seems to have believed in those years (the late 1790s) that the family was on legally solid ground.[4] The case reached the Supreme Court on "a writ of error to the Court of Appeals of Virginia in an action of ejectment involving the construction of the treaties between Great Britain and the United States, the judgment of the Court of Appeals being against the right claimed under those treaties." [5] Justice Joseph Story refused to accept, as final, the Virginia Court of Appeals' interpretation of Virginia law. He found that precedents in Virginia law itself upheld the Fairfax titles.[6] Story's decision to "look into" Virginia law was a vital step in securing federal supremacy. Otherwise, the federal courts could be effectively blocked, by a state court's decision, from addressing a federal question— in this case a British national's rights under the treaties with Britain.[7] The history of litigation prior to reaching the Supreme Court suggests that there was much for the Court to look into. Justice Johnson dissented, arguing that the Virginia legislature acted within its rightful authority, when the Fairfax lands were sequestered without certain established procedures being followed.[8] After the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Virginia Court of Appeals was mistaken in denying the validity of the Fairfax land titles, the Virginia Court rejected the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate. Martin v. Hunter's Lessee then came forward under a writ of error. Fairfax's Devisee is, however, significant in its own right.