Suydam v. Broadnax Administrators of Newton

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United States Supreme Court

39 U.S. 67

Suydam  v.  Broadnax Administrators of Newton

ON a certificate of division from the Circuit Court of the United States, of the Southern District of Alabama.

An action was instituted in the Circuit Court of Alabama by Henry A. Suydam and William Boyd, against the defendants, as administrators of David Newton, on a promissory note given by him to the plaintiffs.

On the trial of the cause the following questions arose, on which the judges of the Circuit Court were divided, and the same were certified to this Court.

1st. Is the plea that the estate of the said decedent is insolvent, sufficient in law to abate the said action?

2d. If the said plea be sufficient in law to abate said action, can the Circuit Court of the United States for the district aforesaid, refer said cause for adjudication and final settlement to a board of commissioners, to be appointed by a County Court in one of the counties in the state of Alabama, in pursuance of an act of the Legislature of the said state?

Mr. Curtis, for the plaintiffs, presented the following points:--

1. The law of Alabama is no defence to the action, because it is in conflict with a law of the United States.

2. The law of Alabama is void, because it is repugnant to the clause in the tenth section of the eleventh article of the Constitution of the United States, which inhibits any state from passing 'any law impairing the obligation of a contract.'

3. Even if the law of Alabama be admitted to be valid, it is no defence to the action.

On the first point, That the law of Alabama is no defence to the action, because it is in conflict with a law of the United States, Mr. Curtis said:--

The plaintiffs, residing in New York, sued the defendants, residing in Alabama, as administrators of a deceased person. For the defence, a law of that state is relied on, the clause of which, applicable to the case, is as follows: 'Nor shall any suit or action be commenced or sustained against him,' [i. e. an executor or administrator,] 'after the estate of the testator or intestate is represented insolvent.' Two exceptions are made, which have nothing to do with the present case. Aikin's Digest of The Laws of Alabama, second edition, 1836, 152. 664, 8vo.

The second section of the third article of the Constitution of the United States extends their judicial powers to controversies between citizens of different states. The Judiciary Act of 24th September, 1789, section eleven, (2 Laws of the United States, 60, 61,) gives the Circuit Courts of the United States, original cognisance, concurrent with the Courts of the several states, of certain classes of cases, among which are cases in which 'the suit is between a citizen of the state where the suit is brought, and a citizen of another state;' and in which 'the matter in dispute exceeds, exclusive of costs, the sum or value of five hundred dollars.' It is admitted that the present case has both these requisites for jurisdiction on the part of the federal Court. The effect, then, of the defence, if successful, would be to establish the doctrine, that it is competent for a state legislature, under the Constitution of the United States, to pass a law to oust a Court of the United States of a jurisdiction which that Constitution had conferred on it.

The mere statement of such a proposition is, one would think, its conclusive refutation.

The effect claimed for the law of Alabama, would be to give a state exclusive jurisdiction of cases in which, by the Constitution and laws of the United States, and the judicial expositions of that Contitution and those laws, the state has no jurisdiction at all. 'For,' the Court said, 'in cases of concurrent authority, where the laws of the states or of the Union are in direct and manifest collision on the same subject, those of the Union being 'the supreme law of the land,' are of paramount authority; and the state laws, so far, and so far only, as such incompatibility exists, must necessarily yield.' Per Story, J., in Houston vs. Moore, 5 Wheat. 49, 50.

This passage occurs, it is true, in the opinion of a judge who dissented from the judgment of the Court in the particular case; but the difference between the judges was, not as to the principle, (for it appears never to have been, as Judge Story says, 'seriously doubted,') but as to its application to the case before them. In the persent case no such difference can exist. The law of the United States says that the Circuit Court shall try it; the law of Alabama says that the Circuit Court shall not try it. The conflict between the two statutes is direct and palpable. It is for the Supreme Court to say which is to prevail.

It may not be amiss, on this point of concurrent powers, to cite the principle laid by Chancellor Kent, after analyzing the case of Houston vs. Moore, and other cases, in which the subject had been judicially examined: 'It would seem, therefore, that the concurrent power of legislation in the states, is not an independent, but a subordinate and dependent power, liable in many cases to be extinguished, and in all cases to be postponed, to the paramount or supreme law of the Union, wherever the federal and the state regulations interfere with each other.' 1 Kent's Commentaries, 394. 388-393.

After referring to the doctrine of the Federalist, (No. 82,) that in all cases of concurrent jurisdiction, an appeal would lie from the state Courts to the Supreme Court of the United States; that without such right of appeal, the concurrent jurisdiction of the state Courts, in matters of national concern would be inadmissible, because, in that case, it would be inconsistent with the authority and efficiency of the general government; and after analyzing several cases, Chancellor Kent says, (1 Commentaries, 403,) that if the state Courts 'voluntarily entertain jurisdiction of cases cognisable under the authority of the United States, they assume it upon the condition, that the appellate jurisdiction of the federal Courts shall apply.' This proposition is irreconcilable with the assumption of the Alabama law, that the federal Courts shall have no jurisdiction at all in the present case.

The same learned judge lays it down as a principle, and sustains it by abundant authority, that 'no state can control the exercise of any authority under the federal government.' (1 Kent's Commentaries, 409-412.) Yet this is exactly what the state of Alabama seeks to do here.

In Fisher vs. Blight, 2 Cranch, 397, the Supreme Court emphatically assert 'the supremacy of the laws of the United States, on all subjects to which the legislative power of Congress extends.'

In a case in which the states of Virginia and Kentucky had made a compact, by the terms of which certain rights to land were to be finally decided according to the laws of Virginia, the Supreme Court said:

'The Constitution of the United States, to which the parties to this compact had assented, gave jurisdiction to the federal Courts in controversies between citizens of different states. The same Constitution vested in this Court an appellate jurisdiction in all cases where original jurisdiction was given to the inferior Courts; with only such exceptions and under such regulations as the Congress shall make. Congress, in pursuance of the Constitution, has passed a law on the subject, in which the appellate jurisdiction of this Court is described in general terms, so as to comprehend this case; nor is there in that law any exception or regulation which would exclude the case of a caveat from its general provisions. If, then, the compact between Virginia and Kentucky was even susceptible of the construction contended for, that construction could only be maintained on the principle that the legislatures of any two states, might, by agreement among themselves, annul the Constitution of the United States. The jurisdiction of the Court being perfectly clear, it remains to inquire which of the parties has the better right.' Wilson vs. Mason, 1 Cranch, 91, 92. See also, Sergeant's Constitutional Law, 44. 275, 276-278. 287-290, second edition, and the cases there cited.

The laws of the several states, as to rights, furnish rules of decision for the federal Courts under certain qualifications; but as to remedies, they have no binding force in these Courts. Campbell, Boaden and Company vs. Claudius, 1 Peters C. C. Rep. 484.

The statutes of limitation of the different states do not bind the United States in suits in Courts of the United States; and cannot be pleaded in bar in a suit by the United States against individuals. United States vs. Hoar, 2 Mason, 311.

'It has been generally held, that the state Courts have a concurrent jurisdiction with the federal Courts, in cases to which the judicial power is extended, unless the jurisdiction of the federal be rendered exclusive by the words of the third article. If the words, 'to all cases,' give exclusive jurisdiction in cases affecting foreign ministers, they may also give exclusive jurisdiction, if such be the will of Congress, in cases arising under the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States.' Cohens vs. Virginia, 6 Wheat. 397.

It has already been shown, that the conflict of the law of Alabama with the law of the United States, covering this case, makes the grant of jurisdiction in the latter to the federal Court a grant of exclusive jurisdiction, quoad this case.

The judiciary Act of the 24th September, 1789, in section thirty-four, (2 Laws of the United States, 70,) declares that the laws of the several states, except where the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States shall otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in trials at common law, in the Courts of the United States, in cases where they apply.

The case at bar is the very exception. It is a suit nor which a statute of the United States has 'otherwise' provided: and far 'otherwise' than the law of Alabama has done; for the federal law says expressly, that the suit may be brought, and the state law says expressly, that the suit shall not be brought.

This thirty-fourth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, has no application to the practice of the Courts, nor in any manner calls upon them to pursue the various changes which may taken place from time to time in the state Courts, with respect to their processes, and modes of proceeding under them. United States Bank vs. Halstead, 10 Wheat. 54.

So far as the act of Congress of the 8th May, 1792, (2 Laws of the United States, 299, 300,) called the 'Process Act,' perpetuating the former act of 29th September, 1789, (2 Laws of the United States, 72,) adopts the state laws as regulating the modes of proceeding in suits at common law, the adoption is expressly confined to those in force in September 1789. The act of Congress does not recognise the authority of any laws of this description which might be afterwards passed by the state. Wayman vs. Southard, 10 Wheat. 41.

If a state law cannot affect the course of causes in the federal Courts, after they have passed to judgment, how can it prevent them, when regularly prosecuted under a law of the United States, from passing the judgment?

On the second point it was argued, that the law of Alabama is void, because it is repugnant to the clause in the tenth section of the first article of the Constitution of the United States, which inhibits a state from passing 'any law impairing the obligation of contracts.'

This law manifestly impairs the obligation of a contract, because it destroys the creditor's remedy, in toto. It disables him from bringing a suit at all, and makes him an outlaw. See as to this point, Sturgis vs. Crowninshield, 4 Wheat. 122. M'Millan vs. M'Neill, 4 Wheat. 209. Ogden vs. Saunders, 12 Wheat. 213. 1 Kent's Com. 419.

On the third point, Mr. Curtis contended that, even if the law of Alabama be admitted, for the sake of argument, to be valid, it is no defence to the action.

The words of the law are, 'Nor shall any suit or action be commenced or sustained against him, after the estate of the testator or intestate is represented insolvent.'

Whether the words 'commenced' and 'sustained' are, as here used, synonymous or not, is a question on which philologists may differ. Dr. Johnson gives seven definitions of the word 'sustain;' the first of which is, 'to bear; to prop; to hold up:' the second, 'to support; to keep from sinking under evil:' the third, 'to maintain; to keep:' and the fourth, 'to help; to relieve; to assist.' Mr. Richardson, on the contrary, says that 'sustain ere,' from which he derives it, means, not to hold up, but to hold or keep under, as well as to support; and defines 'sustain as meaning 'to bear or carry; to bear, to suffer, to endure.' These are his only senses of the word; and they coincide with the remaining three given to it by Dr. Johnson. None of Richardson's definitions of the word 'sustain,' can, it is clear, help out the defence, so far as it rests on that word in the law. It is a word generally used loosely in statutory and judicial language; and it has been 'represented' that the legislature of Alabama is more remarkable than other legislatures for critical elegance or precision. The probability is, that the word 'sustained' was thrown into the law in question as a mere pleonasm. If so, that law prohibits such suits only against an executor or administrator as are commenced after the estate of the testator or intestate is represented insolvent. Now, in the case at bar, the representation of insolvency was after the suit instead of the suit being after the representation. The suit, therefore, was a proper one, even under the law of Alabama.

But, let it be conceded that the word 'sustained' has a substantive meaning in the law, and bars actions properly 'commenced,' on a representation of insolvency made 'pendente lite;' still the law would be inoperative to oust a jurisdiction which had once vested. 'Where,' says Chief Justice Marshall, 'jurisdiction of the federal Court has once attached, no subsequent change in the relation or condition of the parties in the progress of the cause will oust the jurisdiction. The strongest considerations of utility and convenience require, that the jurisdiction once vested, the action of the Court should not be limited; but that it should proceed to make a final disposition of the subject.' U. States vs. Myers et al. 2 Brock. C. C. Rep. 516.

This principle has been repeately announced by the Supreme Court of the United States. See Morgan's heirs vs. Morgan, 2 Wheat. 290. 297. Mollan vs. Torrance, 9 Wheat. 537. Dunn vs. Clarke, 8 Peters, 1. Clarke vs. Mathewson et al. 12 Peters, 164.

Mr. Justice WAYNE delivered the opinion of the Court.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).