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Flash The Cash
08-17-2008, 01:05 PM
Interpreting Ambiguous Language in the Constitution

It has been said that the meaning of the Constitution is clear and obvious. However, this appears not to be the case.

Presented below is an argument between Patrick Henry and James Madison and John Marshall, during the Virginia Ratifying Convention, over the meaning of the word "controversies" in the provision Of the United States Constitution that grants the Federal courts jurisdiction over controversies between a state and citizens of another state.

Madison and Marshall interpret the word “controversies” to include only those disputes where a State is the plaintiff, whereas Henry interprets the word to mean controversies where a state is either a plaintiff or a defendant.

Who was correctly interpreting the Constitution, James Madison and John Marshall or Patrick Henry?

The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal
Constitution [Elliot's Debates, Volume 3]

Friday, June 20, 1788.

[The 1st and 2d sections of the 3d article still under consideration.]


Its jurisdiction in controversies between a state and citizens of another state is much objected to, and perhaps without reason. It is not in the power of individuals to call any state into court. The only operation it can have, is that, if a state should wish to bring a suit against a citizen, it must be brought before the federal court. This will give satisfaction to individuals, as it will prevent citizens, on whom a state may have a claim, being dissatisfied with the state courts. It is a case which cannot often happen, and if it should be found improper, it will be altered. But it may be attended with good effects. This may be illustrated by other cases. It is provided, that citizens of different states may be carried to the federal courts.


As to controversies between a state and the citizens of another state, his construction of it is to me perfectly incomprehensible. He says it will seldom happen that a state has such demands on individuals. There is nothing to warrant such an assertion. But he says that the state may be plaintiff only. If gentlemen pervert the most clear expressions, and the usual meaning of the language of the people, there is an end of all argument. What says the paper? That it shall have cognizance of controversies between a state and citizens of another state, without discriminating between plaintiff and defendant. What says the honorable gentleman? The contrary--that the state can only be plaintiff. When the state is debtor, there is no reciprocity. It seems to me that gentlemen may put what construction they please on it. What! is justice to be done to one party, and not to the other? If gentlemen take this liberty now, what will they not do when our rights and liberties are in their power? He said it was necessary to provide a tribunal when the case happened, though it would happen but seldom. The power is necessary, because New York could not, before the war, collect money from Connecticut! The state judiciaries are so degraded that they cannot be trusted. This is a dangerous power which is thus instituted. For what? For things which will seldom happen; and yet,: because there is a possibility that the strong, energetic government may want it, it shall be produced and thrown in the general scale of power. I confess I think it dangerous. Is it not the first time, among civilized mankind, that there was a tribunal to try disputes between the aggregate society


With respect to disputes between a state and the citizens of another state, its jurisdiction has been decried with unusual vehemence. I hope that no gentleman will think that a state will be called at the bar of the federal court. Is there no such case at present? Are there not many cases in which;the legislature of Virginia is a party, and yet the state is not sued? It is not rational to suppose that the sovereign power Should be dragged before a court. The intent is, to enable states to recover claims of individuals residing in other states. I contend this construction is warranted by the words. But, say they, there will be partiality in it if a state cannot be defendant--if an individual cannot proceed to obtain judgment against a state, though he may be sued by a state. It is necessary to be so, and cannot be avoided. I see a difficulty in making a state defendant, which does not prevent its being plaintiff. If this be only what cannot be avoided, why object to the system on that account? If an individual has a just claim against any particular state, is it to be presumed that, on application to its legislature, he will not obtain satisfaction? But how could a state recover any claim from a citizen of another state, without the establishment of these tribunals?