Cooley v. O'Connor/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

79 U.S. 391

Cooley  v.  O'Connor

When the certificate of sale was given in eviderce by the defendants below, the Circuit Court ruled it to be void, because it was signed by only two commissioners, and this decision of the court is now assigned for error. It is obvious that the ruling was hurtful to the defendants. Had the certificate been admitted it would, by force of the statute, have amounted to prim a facie evidence as well of the regularity and validity of the sale as of the title of the purchasers. It would, therefore, have cast upon the plaintiff the burden of showing affirmatively that the sale was irregular and invalid, and that the title was not in the United States. And we think it was erroneously excluded. It is true that when an authority is given jointly to several persons they must generally act jointly, or their acts are invalid. This is a general rule for private agencies, though it is not universal in its application. But the rule is otherwise when the authority is of a public nature, as it was in this case. The commissioners were public agents, clothed with public authority. They were created a board to perform a governmental function, and it is a familiar principle that an authority given to several for public purposes may be executed by a majority of their number. [5] In one of the cases cited in the note [6] it was held that two of three trustees of a school district might issue a warrant for the collection of a tax, and that the presence of the third trustee at the issuing thereof would be presumed until the contrary was shown. The authorities cited are enough to show that the certificate of sale was not void or inoperative because signed by only two of the commissioners.

In addition to this there is also the act of Congress of March 3d, 1865, [7] in force when this certificate was given, under which, certainly, the validity of the certificate of sale is beyond doubt.

It has been argued, however, on behalf of the defendant in error, that inasmuch as the plea was only that of the general issue, the defendants were not at liberty to set up that the United States were the owners, and that they entered as tenants or licensees of the United States. It is doubtless true that a license from the plaintiff, or a justification under an incorporeal right, or an excuse of the trespass founded on fault of the plaintiff, or an entry by authority of law, with or without process, must be pleaded specially to an action of trespass. The reason is that these defences all admit the trespass and the possession of the plaintiff. But in trespass to real property, a freehold, or mere possessory right in the defendant, may be given in evidence under the general issue, though it is often advisable to plead liberum tenementum. [8] And there is a double reason for this when, as in this case, the action is brought by a plaintiff out of possession professedly to try the title. The action has then the nature of an ejectment, the plaintiff, if recovering at all, recovering possession as well as damages.

It has been further argued that the act of 1862 does not contemplate a certificate of sale in cases where the United States becomes the purchaser, but we are clearly of opinion that it does as fully as in any other.

The second assignment of error is, that the court instructed the jury the advertisement of sale was not such a notice as the law requires. The act of Congress required the board of commissioners to advertise for sale the parcels or lots, the taxes upon which were not paid within sixty days after the amount of the tax had been fixed, in a newspaper published in the town, parish, district, or county where the property was situated, and also by posting notices in at least three public places in the town, parish, district, or county. The evidence given at the trial tended to prove that such advertisement had been made, and that such notices had been posted; nor was this contested. But the court held, and so instructed the jury, that the notice was not such as the law required. The reasons assigned for this ruling were that the advertisement did not state that the whole town of Beaufort was to be sold, and that, being a notice published within military lines, it was like a notice only in a fortified camp, and could not, in fact, be supposed to reach a citizen. We think, however, that neither of these reasons, nor any other not referred to, justified the court in ruling, as a legal conclusion, that the notice given in this case was not such as the law required. Whether the demands of the statute respecting notice of sale had been complied with was a mixed question of law and of fact, and it should have been submitted to the jury. Undoubtedly the advertisement must have been such as to inform persons who read it what property was intended to be exposed for sale. Any description that gave such information was sufficient. Whether the advertisement gave it or not depended not alone upon its contents. It was necessary to compare the description with the property described, and that was the province of the jury.

JUDGMENT REVERSED and a venire de novo awarded.


^5  Commonwealth ex rel. Hall v. Canal Commissioners, 9 Watts, 471; Jewett v. Alton, 7 New Hampshire, 253; Caldwell v. Harrison, 11 Judges Alabama, 755; Williams v. School District, 21 Pickering, 82; Doe v. Godwin, 1 Dowling & Ryland, 259; The King v. Beeston, 3 Term, 592; McCoy v. Curtice, 9 Wendell, 19.

^6  McCoy v. Curtice, 9 Wendell, 19.

^7  Quoted, supra, at the foot of p. 392.

^8  Proprietors of Monumoi Beach v. Rogers, 1 Massachusetts, 160; 1 Chitty's Pleading, 437 and 440.

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).