The 1816 U.S. Supreme Court decision originally called Fairfax’s Devisee v. Hunter’s Lessee had lasting implications for West Virginia. After the death of Lord Fairfax in 1781, Virginia confiscated his lands, including much of what is now the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. Lands thus confiscated were resold.
David Hunter’s purchase of 739 acres of the former Fairfax lands was challenged by Denny Martin, Fairfax’s heir, who sold his interest in the lands to Chief Justice John Marshall and his brother, James. In 1810, the Virginia Court of Appeals upheld Hunter’s claim. Martin’s claim, then in the hands of James Marshall, was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. John Marshall recused himself from the case, and in 1812 Justice Joseph Story delivered the decision of the court. The decision reversed the Virginia court and gave the 739 acres to Fairfax’s heir, and thus to the Marshall brothers.
This did not end the matter. The Virginia court of appeals refused to recognize the decision, challenging the constitutionality of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gave the Supreme Court the right to overrule state courts. With the Supreme Court’s appellate authority under question, Justice Story delivered a second decision on the case, then renamed Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee. This decision, handed down on March 20, 1816, again gave the lands to Fairfax’s heir and reasserted the constitutionality of the Judiciary Act of 1789.
Written by C. Belmont Keeney
Brown, Stuart E. Jr. Virginia Baron. Berryville, VA: Chesapeake Book Co., 1965.
Smith, Jean Edward. John Marshall: Definer of a Nation. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1996.