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CRS Annotated Constitution

Fourteenth Amendment -- Table of ContentsPrev | Next

Statutes of Limitation.—A statute of limitations does not deprive one of property without due process of law, unless, in its application to an existing right of action, it unreasonably limits the opportunity to enforce the right by suit. By the same token, a State may shorten an existing period of limitation, provided a reasonable time is allowed for bringing an action after the passage of the statute and before the bar takes effect. What is a reasonable period, however, is dependent on the nature of the right and particular circumstances.37

Thus, an interval of only one year is not so unreasonable as to be wanting in due process when applied to bar actions relative to the property of an absentee in instances when the receiver for such property has not been appointed until 13 years after the former’s disappearance.38 When a State, by law, suddenly prohibits, unless brought within six months after its passage, all actions to contest tax deeds which have been of record for two years, no unconstitutional deprivation is effected.39 No less valid is a statute, applicable to wild lands, which provides that when a person has been in possession under a recorded deed continuously for 20 years and had paid taxes thereon during the same, the former owner in that interval paying nothing, no action to recover such land shall be entertained unless commenced within 20 years, or before the expiration of five years following enactment of said provi[p.1700]sion.40 Similarly, an amendment to a workmen’s compensation act, limiting to three years the time within which a case may be reopened for readjustment of compensation on account of aggravation of a disability, does not deny due process to one who sustained his injury at a time when the statute contained no limitation. A limitation is deemed to affect the remedy only, and the period of its operation in this instance was viewed as neither arbitrary nor oppressive.41

Moreover, as long as no agreement of the parties is violated, a State may extend as well as shorten the time in which suits may be brought in its courts and may even entirely remove a statutory bar to the commencement of litigation. As applied to actions for personal debts, a repeal or extension of a statute of limitations affects no unconstitutional deprivation of property of a debtor–defendant in whose favor such statute had already become a defense. “A right to defeat a just debt by the statute of limitation . . . [not being] a vested right,” such as is protected by the Constitution, accordingly no offense against the Fourteenth Amendment is committed by revival, through an extension or repeal, of an action on an implied obligation to pay a child for the use of her property,42 or a suit to recover the purchase price of securities sold in violation of a Blue Sky Law,43 or a right of an employee to seek, on account of the aggravation of a former injury, an additional award out of a state–administered fund.44 However, as respects suits to recover real and personal property, when the right of action has been barred by a statute of limitations and title as well as real ownership have become vested in the defendant, any later act removing or repealing the bar would be void as attempting an arbitrary transfer of title.45 Also unconstitutional is the application of a statute of limitation to extend a period that parties to a contract have agreed should limit their right to remedies under the contract. “When the parties to a contract have expressly agreed upon a time limit on their obligation, a statute which invalidates . . . [said] agreement and directs enforcement of the contract after . . . [the agreed] time has expired” unconstitutionally imposes a burden in excess of that contracted.46


Footnotes

37 Wheeler v. Jackson, 137 U.S. 245, 258 (1890) ; Kentucky Union Co. v. Kentucky, 219 U.S. 140, 156 (1911) . Cf. Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422, 437 (1982) (discussing discretion of States in erecting reasonable procedural requirements for triggering or foreclosing the right to an adjudication).
38 Blinn v. Nelson, 222 U.S. 1 (1911) .
39 Turner v. New York, 168 U.S. 90, 94 (1897) .
40 Soper v. Lawrence Brothers, 201 U.S. 359 (1906) . Nor is a former owner who had not been in possession for five years after and fifteen years before said enactment thereby deprived of any property without due process.
41 Mattson v. Department of Labor, 293 U.S. 151, 154 (1934) .
42 Campbell v. Holt, 115 U.S. 620, 623, 628 (1885) .
43 Chase Securities Corp. v. Donaldson, 325 U.S. 304 (1945) .
44 Gange Lumber Co. v. Rowley, 326 U.S. 295 (1945) .
45 Campbell v. Holt, 115 U.S. 620, 623 (1885) . See also Stewart v. Keyes, 295 U.S. 403, 417 (1935) .
46 Home Ins. Co. v. Dick, 281 U.S. 397, 398 (1930) .
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