Bronson v. Kinzie/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

42 U.S. 311

Bronson  v.  Kinzie

THIS case comes before the court upon a division of opinion in the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Illinois, upon certain questions which arose in the case, and which have been certified to this court according to the act of Congress.

It appears from the record, that, on the 13th of July, 1838, John H. Kinzie executed a bond to Arthur Bronson, conditioned for the payment of $4000, on the 1st of July, 1842, with interest thereon, to be paid semi-annually; and, in order to secure the payment of the said sum of money and interest, Kinzie and wife, on the same day, conveyed to the said Bronson, in fee simple, by way of mortgage, one undivided half part of certain houses and lots in the town of Chicago, with the usual proviso that the deed should be null and void if the said principal and interest were duly paid; and Kinzie, among other things, covenanted that, if default should be made in the payment of the principal or interest, or any part thereof, it should be lawful for Bronson or his representatives to enter upon and sell the mortgaged premises at public auction, and, as attorney of Kinzie and wife, to convey the same to the purchaser; and out of the moneys arising from such sale, to retain the amount that might then be due him on the aforesaid bond, with the costs and charges of sale, rendering the overplus, if any, to Kinzie.

The interest not having been paid, Bronson, on the 27th of March, 1841, filed his bill to foreclose the mortgage. In the mean time, after the mortgage was made, and before the bill was filed, the legislature of Illinois, on the 19th of February, 1841, passed a law, the 8th section of which provided that mortgagors and judgment creditors should have the same right to redeem mortgaged premises sold by the decree of a court of chancery, that had been given to the debtors and judgment creditors by a previous law passed in 1825, in cases where lands were sold under execution. The law of 1825 authorized the party whose lands should be sold by execution, after that law took effect, to redeem them within twelve months from the day of sale, by repaying the purchase-money with interest at the rate of 10 per cent.; and if the debtor did not redeem it within the time limited, any judgment creditor was authorized to do so upon the like terms, within fifteen months from the sale. This act, which took effect on the 1st of May, 1825, was held, it seems, not to extend to sales of mortgaged premises under a decree of foreclosure; and the act of February 19, 1841, above mentioned, was passed to embrace them.

By another act of the legislature of Illinois, approved the 27th of February, 1841, it was directed that, 'when any execution should be issued out of any of the courts of the state, and be levied on any property, real or personal, or both, it should be the duty of the officer levying such execution to summon three householders of the proper county, one of whom should be chosen by such officer, one by the plaintiff, and one by the defendant in the execution; or, in default of the parties making such choice, the officer should choose for them; which householders, after being duly sworn by such officer so to do, should fairly and impartially value the property upon which such execution was levied, having reference to its cash value; and that they should endorse the valuation thereof upon the execution, or upon a piece of paper thereunto attached, signed by them; and when such property should be offered for sale, it should not be struck off, unless two-thirds of the amount of such valuation should be bid therefor.' It further provided, among other things, that all sales of mortgaged property should be made according to the provisions of that act, whether the foreclosure of said mortgage was by judgment at law or decree in chancery. It also directed that the provisions of this law should extend to all judgments rendered prior to the 1st of May, 1841, and to all judgments that might be rendered on any contract or cause of action accruing prior to that day, and not to any other judgments than as before specified. These are, in substance, the provisions of these acts, as far as they are material to the present controversy.

On the 19th of June, 1841, after the laws above mentioned had been passed, the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Illinois adopted the following rules:

'Ordered, that when the marshal shall levy an execution upon real estate, he shall have it appraised and sold under the provisions of the law of this state, entitled 'An act regulating the sale of property,' approved February 27, 1841, if the case come within the provisions of that law; and any two or three householders selected under the law, agreeing, may make the valuation of the premises required.

'Before the sale of any real estate on execution, the marshal shall give notice thirty days in a newspaper published in the county where the land lies; and if there be no paper published in the county, then the notice shall be given thirty days before the sale, by notice, as the statute requires. The court adopt the 8th section of the act of this state, to amend the act concerning judgments, &c., passed 19th of February, 1841, which regulates the sale of mortgaged premises, &c., except where special direction shall be given in the decree of sale.'

After these rules were adopted-that is to say, at December term, 1841-the bill filed by Bronson, as hereinbefore mentioned, came on for final hearing in the Circuit Court; and thereupon the complainant moved the court for a final decree of strict foreclosure of said mortgage, or that the mortgaged premises should be sold to the highest bidder, without being subject to said rule and the act referred to. This motion was resisted on part of defendants, who moved that the decree should direct the sale according to said rule and act.

And the judges being opposed in opinion on the following points, to wit:

1. Whether the decree in this case should be so entered as to direct the sale of the said mortgaged premises according to the said statute of the state of Illinois above mentioned; or whether the same premises should be sold at public auction, to the highest bidder, without regard to the said law.

2. Whether the decree in this case shall or shall not direct the sale of the mortgaged premises, without being first valued by three householders, and without requiring two-thirds of the amount of the said valuation to be bid, according to the said act of the state of Illinois.

3. Whether the terms of the mortgage in this case do or do not require it to be excepted from the operation of the rule above recited.

On motion of the complainant, it was ordered and directed that this cause, with said points, be certified to the Supreme Court, in pursuance of the act of Congress. And it is upon these questions, thus certified, that the case is now before us; and the 8th section of the act of February 19th, and the entire act of February 27, are set forth at large in the record, as the laws referred to in the above-mentioned rules of the Circuit Court. The case has been submitted to the court, for decision, by a written agreement between the counsel on both sides. On the part of the complainant, a printed argument has been filed, but none has been offered on behalf of the defendant. As the case involves a constitutional question of great importance, we should have preferred a full argument at the bar. But the parties are entitled, by the rules of the court, to bring it before us in the manner they have adopted; and it being our duty to decide the questions certified to us by the Circuit Court, we have bestowed upon the subject the careful and deliberate consideration which its importance demands.

Upon the points certified, the question is, whether the laws of Illinois, of the 19th and the 27th of February, 1841, come within that clause of the 10th section of the 1st article of the Constitution of the United States, which prohibits a state from passing a law impairing the obligation of contracts.

The laws of a state, regulating the process of its courts, and prescribing the manner in which it shall be executed, of course, do not bind the courts of the United States, whose proceedings must be governed by the acts of Congress. The act of 1792, however, adopted the process used in the state courts, as it stood in 1789; and, since then, the act of 1828, on the same subject, has been passed: and the 3d section of this law directs that final process issued on judgments and decrees in any of the courts of the United States, and the proceedings thereupon, shall be the same, except their style, in each state, respectively, as were then used in the courts of such state, and authorizes the courts of the United States, if they see fit, in their discretion, by rules of court, so far to alter final process as to conform the same to any change which might afterwards be adopted, by the legislatures of the respective states, for the state courts. Any acts of a state legislature, therefore, in relation to final process, passed since 1828, are of no force in the courts of the United States, unless adopted by rules of court, according to the provisions of this act of Congress. And, although such state laws may have been so adopted, yet they are inoperative and no force, if in conflict with the Constitution or an act of Congress.

As concerns the obligations of the contract upon which this controversy has arisen, they depend upon the laws of Illinois as they stood at the time the mortgage deed was executed. The money due was indeed to be paid in New York. But the mortgage given to secure the debt was made in Illinois for real property situated in that state, and the rights which the mortgagee acquired in the premises depended upon the laws of that state. In other words, the existing laws of Illinois created and defined the legal and equitable obligations of the mortgage contract.

If the laws of the state passed afterwards had done nothing more than change the remedy upon contracts of this description, they would be liable to no constitutional objection. For, undoubtedly, a state may regulate at pleasure the modes of proceeding in its courts in relation to past contracts as well as future. It may, for example, shorten the period of time within which claims shall be barred by the statute of limitations. It may, if it thinks proper, direct that the necessary implements of agriculture, or the tools of the mechanic, or articles of necessity in household furniture, shall, like wearing apparel, not be liable to execution on judgments. Regulations of this description have always been considered, in every civilized community, as properly belonging to the remedy, to be exercised or not by every sovereignty, according to its own views of policy and humanity. It must reside in every state to enable it to secure its citizens from unjust and harassing litigation, and to protect them in those pursuits which are necessary to the existence and well-being of every community. And, although a new remedy may be deemed less convenient than the old one, and may in some degree render the recovery of debts more tardy and difficult, yet it will not follow that the law is unconstitutional. Whatever belongs merely to the remedy may be altered according to the will of the state, provided the alteration does not impair the obligation of the contract. But if that effect is produced, it is immaterial whether it is done by acting on the remedy or directly on the contract itself. In either case it is prohibited by the Constitution.

This subject came before the Supreme Court in the case of Green v. Biddle, decided in 1823, and reported in 8 Wheat. 1. It appears to have been twice elaborately argued by counsel on both sides, and deliberately considered by the court. On the part of the demandant in that case, it was insisted that the laws of Kentucky passed in 1797 and 1812, concerning occupying claimants of land, impaired the obligation of the compact made with Virginia in 1789. On the other hand, it was contended that these laws only regulated the remedy, and did not operate on the right to the lands. In deciding the point the court say, 'It is no answer that the acts of Kentucky now in question are regulations of the remedy, and not of the right to the lands. If these acts so change the nature and extent of existing remedies as materially to impair the rights and interests of the owner, they are just as much a violation of the compact as if they directly overturned his rights and interests.' And in the opinion delivered by the court after the second argument, the same rule is reiterated in language equally strong. (See pages 75, [*] 76, and 84.) This judgment of the court is entitled to the more weight, because the opinion is stated in the report of the case to have been unanimous; and Judge Washington, who was the only member of the court absent at the first argument, delivered the opinion of the second.

We concur entirely in the correctness of the rule above stated It is difficult, perhaps, to draw a line that would be applicable in all cases between legitimate alterations of the remedy and provisions which, in the form of remedy, impair the right. But it is manifest that the obligation of the contract, and the rights of a party under it, may, in effect, be destroyed by denying a remedy altogether; or may be seriously impaired by burdening the proceedings with new conditions and restrictions, so as to make the remedy hardly worth pursuing. And no one, we presume, would say that there is any substantial difference between a retrospective law declaring a particular contract or class of contracts to be abrogated and void, and one which took away all remedy to enforce them, or encumbered it with conditions that rendered it useless or impracticable to pursue it. Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1 vol. 55, after having treated of the declaratory and directory parts of the law, defines the remedial in the following words:

'The remedial part of the law is so necessary a consequence of the former two, that laws must be very vague and imperfect without it. For, in vain would rights be declared, in vain directed to be observed, if there were no method of recovering and asserting those rights when wrongfully withheld or invaded. This is what we mean properly when we speak of the protection of the law. When, for instance, the declaratory part of the law has said that the field or inheritance which belonged to Titius's father is vested by his death in Titius; and the directory part has forbidden any one to enter on another's property without the leave of the owner; if Gaius, after this, will presume to take possession of the land, the remedial part of the law will then interpose its office, will make Gaius restore the possession to Titius, and also pay him damages for the invasion.'

We have quoted the entire paragraph, because it shows, in a few plain words, and illustrates by a familiar example, the connection of the remedy with the right. It is the part of the municipal law which protects the right, and the obligation by which it enforces and maintains it. It is this protection which the clause in the Constitution now in question mainly intended to secure. And it would be unjust to the memory of the distinguished men who framed it, to suppose that it was designed to protect a mere barren and abstract right, without any practical operation upon the business of life. It was undoubtedly adopted as a part of the Constitution for a great and useful purpose. It was to maintain the integrity of contracts, and to secure their faithful execution throughout this Union, by placing them under the protection of the Constitution of the United States. And it would but ill become this court, under any circumstances, to depart from the plain meaning of the words used, and to sanction a distinction between the right and the remedy, which would render this provision illusive and nugatory; mere words of form, affording no protection, and producing no practical result.

We proceed to apply these principles to the case before us. According to the long-settled rules of law and equity in all of the states whose jurisprudence has been modelled upon the principles of the common law, the legal title to the premises in question vested in the complainant, upon the failure of the mortgagor to comply with the conditions contained in the proviso; and at law, he had a right to sue for and recover the land itself. But, in equity, this legal title is regarded as a trust estate, to secure the payment of the money; and, therefore, when the debt is discharged, there is a resulting trust for the mortgagor. Conard v. The Atlantic Insurance Company, 1 Peters, 441. It is upon this construction of the contract, that courts of equity lend their aid either to the mortgagor or mortgagee, in order to enforce their respective rights. The court will, upon the application of the mortgagor, direct the reconveyance of the property to him, upon the payment of the money; and, upon the application of the mortgagee, it will order a sale of the property to discharge the debt. But, as courts of equity follow the law, they acknowledge the legal title of the mortgagee, and never deprive him of his right at law until his debt is paid; and he is entitled to the aid of the court to extinguish the equitable title of the mortgagor, in order that he may obtain the benefit of his security. For this purpose, it is his absolute and undoubted right, under an ordinary mortgage deed, if the money is not paid at the appointed day, to go into the Court of Chancery, and obtain its order for the sale of the whole mortgaged property, (if the whole is necessary,) free and discharged from the equitable interest of the mortgagor. This is his right, by the law of the contract; and it is the duty of the court to maintain and enforce it, without any unreasonable delay.

When this contract was made, no statute had been passed by the state changing the rules of law or equity in relation to a contract of this kind. None such, at least, has been brought to the notice of the court; and it must, therefore, be governed, and the rights of the parties under it measured, by the rules above stated. They were the laws of Illinois at the time; and, therefore, entered into the contract, and formed a part of it, without any express stipulation to that effect in the deed. Thus, for example, there is no covenant in the instrument giving the mortgagor the right to redeem, by paying the money after the day limited in the deed, and before he was foreclosed by the decree of the Court of Chancery. Yet no one doubts his right or his remedy; for, by the laws of the state then in force, this right and this remedy were a part of the law of the contract, without any express agreement by the parties. So, also, the rights of the mortgagee, as known to the laws, required no express stipulation to define or secure them. They were annexed to the contract at the time it was made, and formed a part of it; and any subsequent law, impairing the rights thus acquired, impairs the obligations which the contract imposed.

This brings us to examine the statutes of Illinois which have given rise to this controversy. As concerns the law of February 19, 1841, it appears to the court not to act merely on the remedy, but directly upon the contract itself, and to engraft upon it new conditions injurious and unjust to the mortgagee. It declares that, although the mortgaged premises should be sold under the decree of the Court of Chancery, yet that the equitable estate of the mortgagor shall not be extinguished, but shall continue for twelve months after the sale; and it moreover gives a new and like estate, which before had no existence, to the judgment creditor, to continue for fifteen months. If such rights may be added to the original contract by subsequent legislation, it would be difficult to say at what point they must stop. An equitable interest in the premises may, in like manner, be conferred upon others; and the right to redeem may be so prolonged, as to deprive the mortgagee of the benefit of his security, by rendering the property unsaleable for any thing like its value. This law gives to the mortgagor, and to the judgment creditor, an equitable estate in the premises, which neither of them would have been entitled to under the original contract; and these new interests are directly and materially in conflict with those which the mortgagee acquired when the mortgage was made. Any such modification of a contract by subsequent legislation, against the consent of one of the parties, unquestionably impairs its obligations, and is prohibited by the Constitution.

The second point certified arises under the law of February 27, 1841. The observations already made in relation to the other act apply with equal force to this. It is true that this law apparently acts upon the remedy, and not directly upon the contract. Yet its effect is to deprive the party of his pre-existing right to foreclose the mortgage by a sale of the premises, and to impose upon him conditions which would frequently render any sale altogether impossible. And this law is still more objectionable, because it is not a general one, and prescribing the mode of selling mortgaged premises in all cases, but is confined to judgments rendered, and contracts made, prior to the 1st of May, 1841. The act was passed on the 27th of February in that year; and it operates mainly on past contracts, and not on future. If the contracts intended to be affected by it had been specifically enumerated in the law, and these conditions applied to them, while other contracts of the same description were to be enforced in the ordinary course of legal proceedings, no one would doubt that such a law was unconstitutional. Here a particular class of contracts is selected, and encumbered with these new conditions; and it can make no difference, in principle, whether they are described by the names of the parties, or by the time at which they were made.

In the case before us, the conflict of these laws with the obligations of the contract is made the more evident by an express covenant contained in the instrument itself, whereby the mortgagee, in default of payment, was authorized to enter on the premises, and sell them at public auction; and to retain out of the money thus raised, the amount due, and to pay the overplus, if any, to the mortgagor. It is impossible to read this covenant, and compare it with the laws now under consideration, without seeing that both of these acts materially interfere with the express agreement of the parties contained in this covenant. Yet, the right here secured to the mortgagee is substantially nothing more than the right to sell, free and discharged of the equitable interest of Kinzie and wife, in order to obtain his money. Now, at the time this deed was executed, the right to sell, free and discharged of the equitable estate of the mortgagor, was a part of every ordinary contract of mortgage in the state, without the aid of this express covenant; and the only difference between the right annexed by law and that given by the covenant consists in this: that in the former case, the right of sale must be exercised under the direction of the Court of Chancery, upon such terms as it shall prescribe, and the sale made by an agent of the court; in the latter, the sale is to be made by the party himself. But, even under this covenant, the sale made by the party is so far subject to the supervision of the court, that it will be set aside, and a new one ordered, if reasonable notice is not given, or the proceedings be regarded, in any respect, as contrary to equity and justice. There is, therefore, in truth but little material difference between the rights of the mortgagee with or without this covenant. The distinction consists rather in the form of the remedy, than in the substantial right; and as it is evident that the laws in question invade the right secured by this covenant, there can be no sound reason for a different conclusion, Where similar rights are incorporated by law into the contract, and form a part of it at the time it is made.

Mortgages made since the passage of these laws must undoubtedly be governed by them; for every state has the power to prescribe the legal and equitable obligations of a contract to be made and executed within its jurisdiction. It may exempt any property it thinks proper from sale, for the payment of a debt; and may impose such conditions and restrictions upon the creditor as its judgment and policy may dictate. And all future contracts would be subject to such provisions; and they would be obligatory upon the parties in the courts of the United States, as well as in those of the state. We speak, of course, of contracts made and to be executed in the state. It is a case of that description that is now before us; and we do not think it proper to go beyond it.

Upon the questions presented by the Circuit Court, we therefore answer:

1. That the decree should direct the premises to be sold at public auction to the highest bidder, without regard to the law of February 19, 1841, which gives the right of redemption to the mortgagor for twelve months, and to the judgment creditor for fifteen.

2. That the decree should direct the sale of the mortgaged premises, without being first valued by three householders, and without requiring two-thirds of the amount of the said valuation to be bid according to the law of February 27, 1841.

The decision of these two questions disposes of the third. And we shall direct these answers to be certified to the Circuit Court. #fn-s-s [1]


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