Independence Day 2016 marks the 240th anniversary of the Second Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This milestone in US history is observed by Americans, young and old, as a national holiday on the same calendar date each year. If July 4 is a Saturday, it is observed on Friday, July 3. If July 4 is a Sunday, it is observed on Monday, July 5. This year government offices and schools are closed on Monday, July 4. See 5 U.S. Code § 6103. The library at Brooklyn Law School has reduced hours on Monday and will be open from 9am to 5pm so law students can study for the bar exam scheduled at the end of July.
In Constitutional Law courses law students at BLS and throughout the country learn that the decision by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803) is arguably the most important case in American law. It was the first U.S. Supreme Court case to apply the principle of “judicial review”, the power of federal courts to void acts of Congress in conflict with the Constitution. However, a newly acquired title in the BLS Library collection, Rutgers v. Waddington: Alexander Hamilton, the End of the War for Independence, and the Origins of Judicial Review by historian Peter Charles Hoffer (Call No. KF228.R877 H64 2016) makes clear that Marbury was not the first court in the new American Republic that considered the argument that a legislative enactment in conflict with a state or federal constitutional provision is void. One of the first decisions to address the question was Rutgers v. Waddington, decided in the Mayor’s Court in the City of New York on August 7, 1786. The case is important to American constitutional law because defendants’ primary attorney who argued for an expansive notion of judicial power was Alexander Hamilton, who advocated for the principal of judicial review in Federalist Paper No. 78.
The case was presented on June 29, 1784 with Chief Justice James Duane presiding. The facts showed that Plaintiff Elizabeth Rutgers owned a large brewery and alehouse on the northern side of Maiden Lane near where Gold Street now enters it. The brewery extended from Smith (now William) Street on the west, to Queen (now Pearl) Street, on the east; and from Maiden Lane, on the south, to John Street on the north. It was one of the most notable features in what is now the Financial District. Plaintiff was forced to abandon the brewery during the British occupation of New York City. Under the Trespass Act of 1783, which permitted patriots to sue loyalists for damages to property in occupied areas of the state, Rutgers demanded rent from Joshua Waddington who had been running the brewery since it was abandoned. Alexander Hamilton, attorney for the defense, argued that the Trespass Act violated the 1783 peace treaty ratified earlier by Congress. Chief Justice Duane delivered a split verdict awarding Rutgers rent only from the time before the British occupation. The case was ultimately settled by the two parties. Importantly the case set a precedent for Congress’s legal authority over the states. In his ruling, Chief Justice James Duane wrote that “no state in this union can alter or abridge, in a single point, the federal articles or the treaty.”