Henderson v. Tennessee/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion
Woodbury

United States Supreme Court

51 U.S. 311

Henderson  v.  Tennessee


The plaintiff in ejectment proved, that, in '1837 or 1838, Thomas Henderson got possession for the heirs of Andrew Miller, under which title it has since been held.' The charge of the judge to the jury was in contradiction to the act of the court in admitting Henderson and Calloway to defend, instead of the tenants in possession; the plaintiff and the court were estopped by their own acts, by the record, by the evidence, from assuming the position that Calloway and Henderson had no title in themselves, but relied solely on an outstanding title in the heirs of Andrew Miller. If such had been their predicament, they could not, without violating the established principles of law relating to actions of ejectment, have been admitted by the court as defendants in the room and stead of the tenants in possession.

This ipse dixit of the judge in his charge to the jury, so excepted to, and so unwarranted, cannot be taken by this court as legal and veritable, so as to defeat a revision of the final judgment of the Supreme Court under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act of the United States.

A judge, by his charge to the jury, cannot make evidence, cannot create an admission for a party, so as to bind him contrary to the facts, contrary to the record, contrary to the law. Williams v. Norris, 12 Wheat., 119. When such a charge is excepted to, it is a proper subject for revision and reversal, equally with any other error or mistake of fact or law committed by the judge.

Putting this unwarranted dictum of the judge out of the way, we come to the question of the jurisdiction of this court to re-examine the final decision of the Supreme Court of Tennessee in this action of ejectment.

The twenty-fifth section of the act of Congress approved 24th September, 1789 (1 Stat. at L., 85), provides,-'That a final judgment or decree in the highest court of law or equity of a state in which a decision in the suit could be had, where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of, or an authority exercised under, any state, on the ground of their being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, and the decision is in favor of such their validity; or where is drawn in question the construction of any clause of the Constitution, or of a treaty or statute of, or commission held under, the United States, and the decision is against the title, right, privilege, or exemption specially set up or claimed by either party under such clause of said Constitution, treaty, statute, or commission, may be re-examined, and reversed or affirmed, in the Supreme Court of the United States, upon a writ of error,' &c. 'But no other error shall be assigned or regarded as a ground of reversal, in any such case as aforesaid, than such as appears on the face of the record, and immediately respects the before-mentioned questions of validity or construction of the said Constitution, treaties, statutes, commissions, or authorities in dispute.'

In this ejectment the plaintiff claimed, under a law of the state, that the land was lawfully surveyed as of the public domain of the state, and that it was lawfully appropriated as a school section, according to the plan of the surveyor of the state for the Highwassee district; the defendants claimed under the treaties of the United States of 1817 and 1819, with the Cherokee nation of Indians, authorizing reservations of 640 acres to the heads of Indian families who elected to become citizens of the United States, and under a reservation duly taken by Andrew Miller, for himself and his family, in accordance with the said treaties.

Upon the face of the record in this case it appears, that 'the principal question raised was, whether from the above facts Miller's children had any interest in said land as a reservation by virtue of the registration and residence of their father at Toqua, the place in dispute;' and it farther appears that the court instructed the jury, 'that although the ancestor, Andrew Miller, registered his name for the place in dispute, and took possession thereof in the spring of 1818, and died upon the place in July or August of the same year, and before the treaty of 1819, no title vested in him, Andrew Miller, and consequently none could vest or descend to his heirs.'

The case, stripped of the fictions used in actions of ejectment, is substantially a question between the commissioners of the school fund of the state of Tennessee, claiming under a law of that state, and the admitted defendants, Calloway and Henderson, claiming and holding possession of the land under the treaties of the United States; and the court gave a construction of the treaties adverse to the right, title, privilege, and possession claimed under those treaties. It is a conflict of state law and state authority with the rights claimed under the authority and treaties of the United States, and so appears plainly and palpably upon the face of the record.

But to evade the jurisdiction of this court to re-examine and reverse or affirm the final decision of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, so plainly within the reason and exigencies of the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act, in a case so palpably requiring the exercise of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of the United States, to give the true construction of these treaties of 1817 and 1819, and to maintain the supremacy of the laws of the United States, it is here argued, that Henderson and Calloway are not in a predicament to prosecute this writ of error.

Do not the treaties protect a possessory right held under them equally with the rights in fee simple? Is a defendant in a possessory action bound to show that he is tenant in fee? Shall a defendant in a possessory action, against whom the plaintiff has obtained an erroneous judgment, be barred of a writ of error, because on the trial he did not deduce to himself a title in fee?

That the erroneous dictum, the unfounded assumption, the gratuitous ipse dixit, of the judge, in his charge to the jury, is no bar, cannot alter the fact or the law, need not be farther argued.

The action of ejectment is a posessory action, invented by the courts to try possessory titles, unembarrassed by the difficulties attendant upon real actions. The declaration is a fiction, the plaintiff's name is fictitious, the defendant's name is fictitious, the lease is a fiction, the casual ejector's name is fictitious; yet all these fictions have been regulated and moulded by courts and by legislation into a system, governed by known and established principles, well adapted to the purposes of substantial justice. The distinction between a real action founded upon a right of property, and a possessory action founded upon a right of possession, is well established, and the ejectment is confined to cases in which the claimant has a right to the possession. When the claimant has only a right of property, or a right of action remaining to him, his entry upon the land would be illegal, not sufficient to enable him to make a real valid lease, and he could not maintain an ejectment, for principles remain, although the forms of proceeding are changed.

Blackstone, in his Commentaries (book 2, ch. 30, pp. 195 to 199), tells us of four several degrees requisite to form a complete title to lands;-1st. The lowest and most imperfect degree of title consists in the mere naked possession of the estate, without any apparent right, or shadow of right, to continue that possession; which is, however, prim a facie evidence of a legal title in the possessor, and it may, by length of time (and negligence of him who hath the right), ripen into a perfect indefeasible title. 2d. The next step to a good and perfect title is the right of possession. 3d. The mere right of property, jus proprietatis, without either possession or even the right of possession, where the estate of the owner is divested and 'put to a right.' 4th. A complete title, 'jus duplicatum,' or 'droit droit,' where there is 'juris et seisinae conjunctio.' As the action of ejectment is a possessory action, founded on a right to the possession, and can be maintained by a right to the possession even for a term of years, so it can be defended by one having the actual possession. A tenant, under an unexpired lease from his landlord, may successfully defend an action of ejectment against him by his landlord.

In the action of ejectment, the right of possession only is tried, not the ultimate mere right of property; and the plaintiffs must show a right of entry. Taylor v. Hord, 1 Burr., 119; Troublesome v. Estill, 1 Bibb (Ky.), 128; Adams on Eject., 10, 33, 247; Runnington on Eject., 21, 42.

The party in possession is presumed to be the owner until the contrary is proved. The possession of the defendant gives him a right against every person who cannot show a good right to possession,-a good right to change the possession. Roe on dem. Haldane v. Harvey, 4 Burr., 2487, 2488; 2 Bl. Com., ch. 13, p. 196.

The lessor of the plaintiff and the tenants in possession, or persons admitted to defend in place of the tenants in possession, 'are parties, and the only parties, to an ejectment.' Aslin v. Parkin, 2 Burr., 667, 668.

The possession of the tenants sued, and the possession of the defendants, Calloway and Henderson, admitted in place and stead of the tenants, is connected with, and knit to, the title of Miller's children, growing out of the treaties of the United States with the Cherokee nation of Indians; so the plaintiff himself proved by his own witnesses. The record states, that 'the principal question raised was, whether, from the above facts, Miller's children had any interest in said land, as a reservation, by virtue of the registration and residence of their father at Toqua, the place in dispute;' and the court gave instruction to the jury containing a construction of the treaties adverse to the right, title, and interest of Miller's children, and of the defendants in possession under the title growing out of the treaty.

To the opinion of the court, in admitting Henderson and Calloway as defendants 'in the room and stead of the tenants sued,' 'to defend in the room of the tenants in possession,' the plaintiff took no bill of exception; he acquiesced and assented of record. It cannot now be alleged that the evidence adduced by Calloway and Henderson, of their being landlords to the tenants in possession, was insufficient to admit them to defend in the room and stead of the tenants upon whom the declaration was served.

That question cannot now be raised in this court. It is not now an open question. Henderson and Calloway are the defendants, against whom the plaintiff has taken his judgment for the possession and for the costs of suit. They had the right to appeal, and did appeal, to the Supreme Court of Tennessee; they have the right, under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act, to have the construction of the treaties, as given in the Circuit Court of Monroe County, and as affirmed by the Supreme Court of Tennessee, reexamined and reversed or affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Supreme Court of Tennessee, in affirming the judgment of the Circuit Court of Monroe County, affirmed the construction of the treaties as set forth in the bill of exceptions.

The following cases, decided upon the jurisdiction of this court, under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act, will suffice to sustain the jurisdiction in this case. Craig v. The State of Missouri, 4 Pet., 229; Worcester v. The State of Georgia, 6 Id., 515, 582, 583, 597; Crowell v. Randell, 10 Id., 391-399.

In this case of Crowell v. Randell, fourteen previous decisions of this court upon this twenty-fifth section are reviewed, and the doctrine reaffirmed, 'that it is not necessary that the question should appear on the record to have been raised, and the decision made, in direct and positive terms, 'ipsissimis verbis,' but it is sufficient if it appears by clear and necessary intendment, that the question must have been raised, and must have been decided, in order to have induced the judgment.'

The case of Owings v. Norwood's Lessee, 5 Cranch, 344, has been relied on as being adverse to the jurisdiction of this court, in the case under consideration. Norwood's lessee claimed under a grant from the state of Maryland, dated in June, 1800, founded upon a consfiscation of the land called Brown's Adventure. Owings, to defeat the action of Norwood's lessee, attempted to set up, as an outstanding title, a patent of the year 1695, to Thomas Brown, who conveyed to John Gadsby, who conveyed to Aaron Rawlins, in 1703, who mortgaged in fee to Jonathan Scarth, by deed of 1706, with a proviso to be void upon payment of 800, with interest, on the 13th of May, 1709. This mortgage to Scarth, Owings set up to show a title outstanding against Norwood's lessee, contending that the mortgage to Scarth was protected by the treaty of 1794, between the United States and Great Britain, from confiscation, and was still a security for the money to the representatives of Scarth, who were proved to be still living in England. But the Court of Appeals of Maryland decided, that, at the expiration of the time for payment limited in the deed to Scarth, a complete legal estate vested in the mortgagee, Scarth, liable to confiscation; and was confiscated by virtue of the act of Maryland of October session, 1780, ch. 45, and vested in the state; and that the British treaty did not affect the plaintiff's title.

Upon the writ of error to the Supreme Court of the United States, the court decided that the case of Scarth's representatives was not protected by the treaty, and that the right set up by the plaintiff in error did not grow out of the treaty. And most certainly that right, so set up by Owings, originated more than fourscore years before the treaty. Surely that case has no similitude to this. The explanation of Chief Justice Marshall (5 Cranch, 348) maintains the jurisdiction of this court in the case now under consideration. A right in fee simple, growing out of a treaty, is protected in whole, and in all its parts and interests, which are holden or possessed, subordinate to the estate in fee; and the Judiciary Act will come in aid of the protection, when the lowest grade of such interest shall be drawn in question in the state courts, either directly or 'incidentally.' Such is the true effect of the decision in Owings v. Norwood's Lessee; such is the true construction of the Constitution and the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act.

Mr. Ewing, contra.

This court cannot obtain jurisdiction by mere consent of parties. It was the policy of the law to commit to this court certain specified cases arising in the state courts. If the case is within the Judiciary Act, jurisdiction follows. If not, no matter what the parties may have agreed, or what they may be estopped from denying, or what the court below may have permitted, or what it may be estopped from denying, this court has no jurisdiction of the matter. It might be true, then, as it has been urged, that, after we had admitted the plaintiffs in error to defend in the court below, we might be estopped from denying that they had title in themselves, and did not rely solely on an outstanding title in the heirs of Andrew Miller; and yet neither the admission nor the estoppel would confer jurisdiction on this court. This court will take notice of its own jurisdiction. And no matter at what stage of the proceedings a want of jurisdiction may appear, or in what manner it may appear, the court will act upon it, notwithstanding any technical or other admissions of the parties to the record.

By the statute of Tennessee, children cannot be concluded unless they are brought before the court. Now here you would conclude the children of Miller, though the facts do not show any privity between the plaintiffs in error and the heirs of Miller. Henderson and Calloway set up an outstanding title in the heirs of Miller, under the treaty, and attempt thus to give jurisdiction to this court. And if this court entertain the case, it determines the rights of the heirs of Miller under the treaty, although they are not before the court. And if the rights of the heirs of Miller should ever hereafter be brought before this court for adjudication, it would be held that, by the present decision, their rights are determined. 5 Cranch, 344.

Mr. Stanton, on the same side.

Is there any proper proof of any such privity between the plaintiffs in error and the heirs of Miller, as would enable the former to set up the title of Miller's heirs as their own, and thus bring it within the treaty? The bill of exceptions upon its face shows that it was put in by consent, and was undoubtedly drawn up by the attorney, and signed by the judge, as is the practice in Tennessee. The facts were not set down precisely in order as they were proven.

The argument on the other side would lead us to the conclusion that it is the duty of this court 'ampliare jurisdictionem.' We maintain precisely the reverse; and in this case especially, that the mere fact of the defendants below setting up an outstanding title, out of themselves, without a claim in themselves under the treaty, cannot confer jurisdiction. The true construction of the statute is, that the persons intended to be benefited must have a direct interest under the statute or treaty, and specially set up that interest in the state court. Otherwise, the true holders of the title would have their rights adjudicated, when they were not parties to the suit. 5 Cranch, 344; 12 Wheat., 117.

Inasmuch as the plaintiffs in error are only entitled to come into this court, under the Judiciary Act, by virtue of the outstanding title in the heirs of Andrew Miller, they are entirely precluded from the forum for want of privity with those heirs.

Mr. Eaton, in reply and conclusion.

Under the twenty-fifth section of the Judiciary Act, the only question is, not one of meum and tuum, but whether the construction of a treaty or law of the United States is involved. The eighth article of the treaty of 1817 gave a life estate to the head of a family, dower to the widow, and remainder in fee to the children. Andrew Miller was the head of an Indian family, and was registered as such. The land claimed, it is true, was not within that ceded by the treaty of 1817, but by that of 1819. But we claim that the true construction of those treaties is, that the latter was but the construction of the former. And it is this construction of those treaties which gives us a standing in this court. It is not a mere outstanding title which we set up. The bill of exceptions expressly states, that 'Thomas Henderson (one of the plaintiffs in error) got possession for the heirs of Andrew Miller, under which title it has since been held.' We hold under that title, then. And it is out title under the heirs of Andrew Miller, and their title under the treaties of 1817 and 1819, which is in fact one and the same title, that is involved. The children of Miller were actually on the land enjoying the rents until put off by the School Commissioners. The statutes of the state of Tennessee override the treaties of the United States.

Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.

The first question to be decided in this case is, whether the court has jurisdiction.

The case is brought before us by a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the state of Tennessee. It appears by the record, that the decision turned upon the title of Andrew Miller to the lands in question, under the treaties of 1817 and 1819, with the Cherokee nation. Andrew Miller was the head of an Indian family when the first treaty was made, and it was insisted at the trial that the title to this land was in his heirs, by virtue of the reservations contained in these treaties. The decision was against the validity of this title, and the question is, whether the plaintiffs in error claimed under it. If they did not, this court has no power to revise the judgment of the state court.

It was an action of ejectment. The plaintiffs in error were permitted by the court to appear as defendants. They were not the tenants in possession when the suit was brought. The process was served on other persons named in the proceedings, and the record does not show in what character, or upon what ground, the plaintiffs in error were permitted to appear and defend the suit.

Andrew Miller died in 1818, and the land in dispute was held for his children until 1822, when the state took possession of it, claiming title. The widow of Miller removed to the Cherokee nation, in their new settlement on the west of the Mississippi, soon after his death, and the children followed her when the state took possession of the land; and they have all remained there ever since. The right to this property appears to have been continually in dispute since the treaties above mentioned, and after the removal of Miller's children the possession changed hands several times before this suit was brought.

The bill of exceptions states that Henderson, one of the plaintiffs in error, got possession for the heirs of Andrew Miller in 1837 or 1838, under which title it was held down to the commencement of this suit. But it is not stated that he or Calloway had any authority from the heirs of Andrew Miller. On the contrary, it is expressly stated that they set up no title in themselves, but relied for their defence on an outstanding title in the heirs of Andrew Miller.

Now, in the language of ejectment law, an outstanding title means a title in a third person, under which the tenant in possession does not claim. And as no one has a right to enter upon the land and eject the tenant but the person holding the legal title, if the tenant can show that the title was in a third person it defeats the action, although the tenant sets up no title in himself. This was the defence in the case before the court. If they had been in possession under the heirs of Miller, as tenants holding under their authority, then the title of the heirs would have been the title of the tenants, and they could have defended their possession, by showing title in themselves derived from the heirs. For although the landlord may appear and defend on account of his own interest, yet his appearance is not necessary for the protection of the tenant. The tenant may show the title of the landlord, and his own right derived from him. And if the plaintiffs in error had made this defence, they would evidently have claimed a right to the possession under a treaty of the United States; and as the decision was against the right, this court would have jurisdiction, and might reverse the judgment if they deemed it erroneous. But they claimed no right to the possession under this title. They set it up as a title in a third person, not to show a right in themselves, but that the lessor of the plaintiff had none, and therefore had no right to enter upon them. They might have been mere trespassers or intruders, without any authority from the legal owner, and yet this defence would have been a good one, if the outstanding title was superior to that produced by the lessor of the plaintiff.

The right to make this defence is not derived from the treaties, nor from any authority exercised under the general government. It is given by the laws of the state, which provide that the defendant in ejectment may set up title in a stranger in bar of the action. It is true, the title set up in this case was claimed under a treaty. But to give jurisdiction to this court, the party must claim the right for himself, and not for a third person in whose title he has no interest. The case in 5 Cranch, 344, Owings v. Norwood's Lessee, is in point. And the same doctrine was reaffirmed in Montgomery v. Hernandez, 12 Wheat., 129; Fulton v. McAffee, 16 Pet., 149; and Udell v. Davidson, 7 How., 769.

The heirs of Miller appear to have no interest in this suit, nor can their rights be affected by the decision. The judgment in this case is no obstacle to the assertion of their title in another suit, brought by themselves or any person claiming a legal title under them. And in such a suit this court would have jurisdiction upon a writ of error, whether the judgment was in a Circuit Court of the United States or in a state court.

But this writ of error must be dismissed for want of jurisdiction.


This cause came on to be heard the transcript of the record from the Supreme Court of the state of Tennessee, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this court, that this cause be, and the same is hereby, dismissed for the want of jurisdiction.

Notes[edit]

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).