De Facto Supremacy: Supreme Court Control of State Commercial Law

In 1842, Swift v. Tyson gave federal courts permission to ignore state decisional law in cases that presented commercial questions. Modern writers criticize Swift for attempting to create an exclusive federal forum for commercial cases in order to unify the commercial law. These same writers also criticize Swift for creating less uniformity in the commercial law; Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins, which ended Swift’s ninety-six year reign, relied at least in part on the idea that Swift had promised a uniform commercial law and failed to deliver. Swift has few modern defenders.

This Note shows that Swift may have unified the general commercial law more than modern federal courts theorists suggest. State courts sought to promote uniformity in the commercial law. In deciding their state commercial law cases, they would look not just to their own law, but to the law of other states, the United States, or foreign countries, and choose the position they felt would most likely evolve into a uniform rule. State courts often followed Supreme Court precedent because they felt it would be most likely to become the uniform rule of the country. Through its power to influence the consensus view, the Supreme Court could change not just the commercial law to be applied in federal courts, but the commercial law to be applied in the state courts as well. Contrary to modern federal courts theory, the Supreme Court not only tried, but succeeded in regulating and unifying commercial law in the antebellum United States.