Limits on States: A Reference Guide to the United States Constitution

By James M. McGoldrick Jr. | Go to book overview

2
The Contract Clause

No State shall… pass any… Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.
(Article 1, Section 10, Clause 1)


THE MARSHALL COURT AND THE CONTRACT CLAUSE

No understanding of the Contract Clause is complete without a full appreciation of the role that our most famous chief justice, John Marshall, played in defining the clause. He initially used the Contract Clause as an alternative to natural law limits on state legislation. As an entrenched Federalist favoring a strong central government, he necessarily believed that the states should be limited in their power. There were few specific limits on state power in the main Constitution, and Marshall looked initially to natural law for those limits. He soon turned, however, from natural-law limits to the specific language of the Contract Clause to protect the kind of economic interest found in contractual rights.

There are four important themes that run through the Marshall cases. First, the Contract Clause was intended to limit the state’s modification of its own contracts, so-called public-law contracts, as well as private contracts between private individuals. Though there is some scholarly disagreement about the validity of extending the Contract Clause to public contracts, this extension has not been challenged. In fact, the modern trend is to limit the state’s ability to change its own contracts even more severely than the limits on private contracts. Second, consistent with the specific constitutional prohibition, contractual rights were entitled to the highest level of protection. The early cases considered preexisting contractual rights to be sacrosanct. Unlike the more modern cases, there was no consideration of overriding public interest that might justify abridging preexisting contractual rights. Third, although this was not emphasized in the Marshall portion of the opinions, the Contract Clause protected only preexisting contracts. It did not protect the right to contract as such in regard to future matters but limited only the state’s ability to abridge contracts already entered into. In this, the

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Limits on States: A Reference Guide to the United States Constitution
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Series Foreword ix
  • Foreword xiii
  • 1 - History and Introduction to Article I, Section 10 1
  • 2 - The Contract Clause 5
  • 3 - Bills of Attainder 55
  • 4 - Ex Post Facto Laws 65
  • 5 - The Nonretroactive Provisions of Article I, Section 10 81
  • 6 - The Import-Export Clause 89
  • 7 - Interstate Compacts 101
  • 8 - Concluding Comments on Article I, Section 10 111
  • Bibliographical Essay 115
  • Table of Cases 125
  • Index 131
  • About the Author 135
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