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Calder v. Bull

Citation. 3 U.S. 386 (1798)
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Brief Fact Summary.

After a probate court disapproved a will in which Bull (Defendant) was named as a beneficiary, allowing Calder (Plaintiff)) to inherit instead, the state legislature passed a resolution setting aside this decree and providing for a new trial and right to appeal. The will was approved in the new proceeding and Plaintiff argued that the resolution violated the constitutional prohibition on ex post facto laws.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Even when not expressly prohibited by a constitutional provision, a state legislature may not deprive a citizen of a vested property right.


A state probate court disapproved a will under which Defendant was to inherit. The decree allowed for Plaintiff to inherit as an heir at law. The state legislature then passed a resolution setting this decree aside and granting a new hearing. In this second hearing, the will was approved. The Supreme Court heard the case on appeal and determined that this legislative act did not violate article I, § 10 of the Constitution because this constitutional provision is limited to criminal legislation. The Court then turned to the question of whether the legislature was authorized to enact legislation that deprives a citizen of a vested property right.


When not expressly prohibited by a provision of the Constitution, may a state legislature act to deprive a citizen of a vested property right?


(Chase, J.) No. Even when not expressly prohibited by a constitutional provision, a state legislature may not deprive a citizen of a vested property right. In areas where the Constitution does not expressly limit a state’s legislative power, those powers are still not unlimited. There are acts that exceed both a federal and state legislature’s authority. The government of the United States is based upon a social contract and legislative acts that contradict this contract’s fundamental principles exceed legislative authority. One of these fundamental principles is the protection of personal property. A legislature may not act to transfer property from one individual to another. Because the original decree of the probate court did not vest a right in Plaintiff, the legislature’s act cannot be said to deprive him of a vested property right. Affirmed.


(Iredell, J.) The propriety of legislative acts must be evaluated under the scope of legislative power laid out in federal and state constitutions, not under “natural law” which is not fixed or defined. 


This case continues the evolution of the vested rights doctrine, a doctrine that had arisen out of the state courts. Under this principle, as in this case, not all rights are considered vested. The mere expectation of property is not a vested right to that property. An individual must hold title, either in law or equity, to the present or future enjoyment of property, or to the enforcement of a demand, in order for the right to be vested.

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