Horn v. Lockhart/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 570

Horn  v.  Lockhart


'Had the cause come on for a hearing in this state of parties a decree could not have been made for want of jurisdiction. The name of the citizen, plaintiff, was, however, struck out of the bill before the cause was brought before the court.'

The bill here is filed by the Lockharts to set aside a will, to have distribution made of the estate, and an account against the executor. In such a bill McPhail and wife were necessary parties, [2] and in dismissing the bill as to them to cure the defect of jurisdiction, it was made defective for want of necessary parties.

II. It is not necessary to argue that the decree of the probate court, though made during the civil war, was not for that reason void. The court had jurisdiction of the subject-matter and of the parties. In recognizing the legality of the investment in Confederate bonds, and ordering distribution in them, it had the sanction of the laws of the State and of the Confederate states, under whose dominion it exercised its functions. All the parties to the controversy were voluntarily under this dominion, and whatever was consummated under these laws cannot be readjudicated except by provisions of law enacted for that purpose. Admitting, for the argument, that these laws could be held as invalid, the only consequence would be, not that the decree of final settlement was void, but that it was erroneous, and the time and manner for correcting the error must be looked for in the statutes of the State. [3] That the present decree was final, and concluded all the parties, until reversed, was decided by the Supreme Court of the State, in 1870, [4] in a proceeding by one of the parties to the present bill, who sought to open it.

The counsel then, in order to ascertain particularly what these laws were, gave a history of legislation during the war, inferring from it as plain that all parties aggrieved by judgments or decrees rendered during the civil war had a remedy by way of new trial or appeal.

He also referred to statutes prior to the war, allowing a bill to correct any error in a settlement with an executor in the decree of the probate court, if filed within two years from the date of the decree; arguing that after making all allowances this bill was about two months too late.

But if the bill had been filed in time, the decree was wrong in holding the executor liable by reason of his funding the Confederate money. It is said that this was an act in aid of the rebellion which the dignity of the government will not allow to stand good. But, how so? This is not a case where a party is asking the aid of the court to enforce an illegal contract or to enforce a right arising under an unconstitutional law; but is an appeal to the court to relieve one of the parties to a consummated act to set aside a judgment rendered under a government exercising full dominion over all the parties to it, and with their assumed assent. In such a case it does not lie in the mouth of a complainant to say that the court of probate could not exercise judicial power during the war, nor that these proceedings are erroneous in carrying into effect the laws of the Confederate government, because made to facilitate the war against the government of the United States. If the statute was illegal the complainants must be considered in law as having been parties to it, and as responsible and as much bound as if the record had shown that they were themselves the authors of it; as between citizens thus situated all consummated acts are beyond the reach of judicial revision. The court will not lend its aid to them to undo their own acts.

It may be stated here as matter of fact that the law of the Confederate government, under which the investment under consideration was made, and which was passed on the 15th of February, 1864, required Confederate notes to be funded by a certain time, and enacted that on failure to have them so funded they should no longer be receivable for public dues; they were also to be taxed 33 1/3 per cent., and in addition thereto 10 per cent. a month. Now, if the executor under this law had failed to fund, and allowed the notes to perish on his hands, the complainants in the courts of the Confederacy would have had a perfectly clear case for condemning him. Can they now come into the courts of the United States and hold the executor liable on the opposite ground?

These principles here advanced have been fully sustained by the highest court in Alabama, Mississippi, and Virginia. [5]

The conduct of a trustee or agent must not be judged of by matters ex post facto.

The funding by the executor can in no just sense be considered as an act 'in aid of the rebellion.' It is not pretended that the funding was made with such intention, but, whether with or without intent, was it such an act? By funding the notes the debt of the Confederacy was neither augmented nor diminished; its form was only changed. By failing to fund, the debt was diminished by so much currency made valueless, without any increase in the bonded debt. It is therefore evident that, with the alternative before him to fund or not to fund, the executor acted in the mode least beneficial to the finances of the Confederacy, and for so acting-that is to say for not having given greater aid to the rebellion-the decree holds him liable!

Admit, however, that this funding was illegal, and that consequently the executor is liable as for a conversion, this would not charge him in specie or its equivalent with the amount of the funds converted. The money which he received was, of course, Confederate notes (the only currency of the South), and the measure of his liability is their value at the time of conversion. [6] To this extent the decree ought in any view to be modified.

Mr. J. T. Morgan, contra.

Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.

The validity of the will of John Horn, deceased, is not a question for our consideration. The Circuit Court held that the statute of limitations of Alabama had barred the right of the complainants to contest its validity, and also that they were estopped from such contestation by accepting, without objection or protest, dividends of the property founded upon the directions of the will. The executor and principal devisee does not, of course, controvert the correctness of this decision, as it sustains his position, and the complainants have not appealed.

The case, as presented to us, therefore, is one where an executor in Alabama is alleged to have misappropriated funds of an estate, to which legatees in Texas were entitled, and to enforce from the executor an accounting and payment the legatees ask the aid of a court of the United States.

The objection to the jurisdiction of the court, that two of the defendants were residents of Texas, the same State with the complainants, was met and obviated by the dismissal of the suit as to them. They were not indispensable parties, that is, their interests were not so interwoven and bound up with those of the complainants, or other parties, that no decree could be made without necessarily affecting them. And it was only the presence of parties thus situated which was essential to the jurisdiction of the court. The rights of the parties, other than the defendants who were citizens of Texas, could be, and were, adequately and fully determined without prejudice to the interests of those defendants. And the question always is, or should be, when objection is taken to the jurisdiction of the court by reason of the citizenship of some of the parties, whether to a decree authorized by the case presented, they are indispensable parties, for if their interests are severable and a decree without prejudice to their rights can be made, the jurisdiction of the court should be retained and the suit dismissed as to them. [7]

Upon the accounts presented by the executor to the probate court in Alabama for settlement, it appears that he received moneys from the sales of property belonging to the estate of the testator, amounting to over seven thousand dollars, any invested the same in bonds of the Confederate States. By the decree of the probate court this investment was approved, and the executor was directed to pay the legatees their respective shares in those bonds. Now the question is whether this disposition of the moneys thus received, and the decree of the court, are a sufficient answer on the part of the executor to the present suit of the legatees to compel an accounting and payment to them of their shares of those funds.

It would seem that there could be but one answer to this question. The bonds of the Confederate States were issued for the avowed purpose of raising funds to prosecute the war then waged by them against the government of the United States. The investment was, therefore, a direct contribution to the resources of the Confederate government; it was an act giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States; and the invalidity of any transaction of that kind, from whatever source originating, ought not to be a debatable matter in the courts of the United States. No legislation of Alabama, no act of its convention, no judgment of its tribunals, and no decree of the Confederate government, could make such a transaction lawful.

We admit that the acts of the several States in their individual capacities, and of their different departments of government, executive, judicial, and legislative, during the war, so far as they did not impair or tend to impair the supremacy of the National authority, or the just rights of citizens under the Constitution, are, in general, to be treated as valid and binding. The existence of a state of insurrection and war did not loosen the bonds of society, or do away with civil government, or the regular administration of the laws. Order was to be preserved, police regulations maintained, crime prosecuted, property protected, contracts enforced, marriages celebrated, estates settled, and the transfer and descent of property regulated precisely as in time of peace. No one that we are aware of seriously questions the validity of judicial or legislative acts in the insurrectionary States touching these and kindred subjects, where they were not hostile in their purpose or mode of enforcement to the authority of the National government, and did not impair the rights of citizens under the Constitution. The validity of the action of the probate court of Alabama in the present case in the settlement of the accounts of the executor we do not question, except so far as it approves the investment of funds received by him in Confederate bonds, and directs payment to the legatees of their distributive shares in those bonds. Its action in this respect was an absolute nullity, and can afford no protection to the executor in the courts of the United States.

The act of Alabama which the executor invokes in justification of the investment has been very properly pronounced unconstitutional by the highest tribunal of that State, [8] and the attempt of its legislature to release executors and trustees from accounting for assets in their hands invested in a similar manner rests upon no firmer foundation.

Had the legatees of the testator voluntarily accepted the bonds in discharge of their respective legacies, the case would have presented a very different aspect to us. The estate might then have been treated as closed and settled, but such is not the fact. The bonds were never accepted by the legatees, nor does it appear that the executor even went so far as to offer the bonds to them.

It is urged by counsel for at least a modification of the judgment of the Circuit Court, that the money received by the executor was in Confederate notes, which at the time constituted the currency of the Confederate States. It does not appear, however, that he was under any compulsion to receive the notes. The estate came into his hands in November, 1858, and no explanation is given for his delay in effecting a settlement until the war became flagrant. And even then he was not bound to part with the title to the property in his hands without receiving an equivalent in good money, or such, at least, as the legatees were willing to accept.

DECREE AFFIRMED.

Dissenting, Mr. Justices SWAYNE, DAVIS, and STRONG.

At a subsequent day a motion for rehearing was made, and an elaborate brief by Mr. Phillips filed in support thereof. The motion, however, after advisement, was DENIED.

Notes[edit]

^2  Barney v. Baltimore, 6 Wallace, 283.

^3  Wyman v. Campbell, 6 Porter, 219; Thompson v. Tolmie, 2 Peters, 162; Beauregard v. City of New Orleans, 18 Howard, 502.

^4  Horn v. Bryan, 44 Alabama, 88.

^5  Watson and wife v. Stone, 40 Alabama, 451; Trotter v. Trotter, 40 Mississippi, 710.

^6  Head v. Talley, Administrator, 3 American Law Times, No. 9, p. 155.

^7  See Barney v. City of Baltimore, 6 Wallace, 280; and Shields v. Barrow, 17 Howard, 130.

^8  Houston v. Deloach, 43 Alabama, 364; Powell v. Boon & Booth, Ib. 459.

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).