West v. Barnes

West v. Barnes

Infobox SCOTUS case
Litigants=West v. Barnes
ArgueDate=August 2
DecideDate=August 3
FullName=West v. Barnes
Holding=The Court held "That writs of error to remove causes to this court from inferior courts, can regularly issue only from the clerk's office of the court. Motion refused"

"West v. Barnes", 2 U.S. 401 (1791), was the first United States Supreme Court calling for argument, and it was decided on August 3, 1791. This was one of the earliest potential cases of judicial review in the United States where the Court had the opportunity to overturn a Rhode Island state statute regarding lodging payment of a debt in paper currency in fulfillment of a contract. The Court ultimately, however, decided the case on procedural grounds instead of exercising judicial review, holding that a writ of error must be issued by the clerk of the Supreme Court. As a result of this case, Congress ultimately changed this procedure with ninth section of the act of 1792 allowing Circuit Courts to issues these writs.


William West was a farmer, revolutionary militia general, anti-federalist leader, and judge from Scituate, Rhode Island. West owed a mortgage on his farm from a failed molasses deal in 1763 to the Jenckes family from Providence. West made payments on the mortgage for twenty years, and in 1785 asked the state for permission to conduct a lottery to help pay off the remainder. Due to his service during the Revolution, the state granted him permission. Much of the proceeds were paid in paper currency instead of gold or silver. West tendered payment in the paper currency as allowed by state statute by "lodging" the funds with a state judge to be collected within 10 days.

David Leonard Barnes, an heir of Jenckes and well-known attorney and later federal judge, eventually brought suit in federal court based on diversity and amount in controversy jurisdiction asserting that gold or silver payment was required and refusing the paper currency. Despite lack of formal training, West represented himself in the circuit court in June of 1791 before Chief Justice John Jay, Associate Justice William Cushing, and Henry Marchant. They rejected his arguments. West then attempted to appeal to the Supreme Court on a writ of error, attempting to comply with all statutory directions. West was unable to make the journey to Philadelphia to represent himself, so he engaged William Bradford, Jr., Pennsylvania's attorney general, to represent him. On appeal Barnes focused on the procedural irregularities. He asserted that the writ had been signed and sealed by the clerk of the circuit court in Rhode Island and should have been done by the Supreme Court clerk. This was asserted despite the fact that West would have had to make an arduous journey in 1791 to Philadelphia within 10 days to do so. West lost on this procedural issue and was eventually forced to relinquish his farm.


"On the first day of the term, Bradford presented to the court, a writ, purporting to be a writ of error, issued out of the office of the clerk of the circuit court for Rhode Island district, directed to that court, and commanding a return of the judgment and proceedings rendered by them in this cause: And thereupon he moved for a rule, that the defendant rejoin to the errors assigned in this cause.

Barnes, one of the defendants, (a counsellor of the court) objected to the validity of the writ, that it had issued out of the wrong office: and, after argument,

THE COURT were unanimously of opinion, That writs of error to remove causes to this court from inferior courts, can regularly issue only from the clerk's office of the court.

Motion refused."


Several months after the decision, on November 9, 1791, Barnes brought another suit of ejectment to eject West from the mortgaged farm. He filed suit in the Circuit Court for Rhode Island. Justice Jay, Justice Cushing and Henry Marchant held the plea bad for a second time. They decided that West lodged payment of his debt with a Rhode Island judge on September 16, and therefore Barnes had 10 days to collect it according to the state statute. The Rhode Island "lodging" Act was, however, suspended on the 19th of that month therefore the 10 day period was not able to fully occur as only 3 days had passed, and therefore was not conformable to the statute. Barnes eventually won the ejectment case although he had difficulty ejecting West's family from the farm as he had sold the farm to a son-in-law.

According to Cotter v. Alabama, " [p] rior to 1791 it was the practice that a writ of error could only issue from the office of the clerk of the supreme court. In Mussina v. Cavazos, ( [73, US 355] , 6 Wall. 355), it is stated that a decision to that effect in West v. Barnes... led to the enactment of the ninth section of the act of 1792, being section 1004 of the Revised Statutes..." (Cotter v. Alabama G. S. R. Co., 61 F. 747, 748 (6th Cir. 1894))

ee also

* William West


*James R. Perry, "The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800", Volume 6, "West v. Barnes," pp. 7-27. [http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0231088736&id=S8osR71f7-0C&pg=RA2-PA9&lpg=RA2-PA9&ots=QkKFdtsH4O&dq=%22william+west%22+barnes&sig=dEFhF1FVybZ_qBTRvZzOvB1Isjs#PPR14,M1 Google Book Search excerpt]
*"Earliest Cases of Judicial Review of State Legislation by Federal Courts", by Charles Warren, The Yale Law Journal, 1922, pg. 22-23. (accessed through JSTOR)

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