|Fletcher v. Peck
100 U.S. 1
[ Marshall ]
[ Johnson ]
Fletcher v. Peck
ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS
Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.
In this cause, there are demurrers to three pleas filed in the Circuit Court, and a special verdict found on an issue joined on the 4th plea. The pleas were all sustained, and judgment was rendered for the defendant.
To support this judgment, this Court must concur in overruling all the demurrers; for, if the plea to any one of the counts be bad, the plaintiff below is entitled to damages on that count.
The covenant, on which the breach in the first count is assigned, is in these words:
that the Legislature of the said State, (Georgia), at the time of the passing of the act of sale aforesaid, had good right to sell and dispose of the same, in manner pointed out by the said act.
The breach of this covenant is assigned in these words:
now the said Fletcher saith that, at the time when the said act of the Legislature of Georgia, entitled an act, &c. was passed, the said Legislature had no authority to sell and dispose of the tenements aforesaid, or of any part thereof, in the manner pointed out in the said act. [p126]
The plea sets forth the Constitution of the State of Georgia, and avers that the lands lay within that State. It then sets forth the act of the legislature, and avers that the lands, described in the declaration, are included within those to be sold by the said act, and that the Governor was legally empowered to sell and convey the premises.
To this plea the plaintiff demurred; and the defendant joined in the demurrer.
If it be admitted that sufficient matter is shown in this plea to have justified the defendant in denying the breach alleged in the count, it must also be admitted that he has not denied it. The breach alleged is that the Legislature had not authority to sell. The bar set up is that the Governor had authority to convey. Certainly an allegation that the principal has no right to give a power, is not denied by alleging that he has given a proper power to the agent.
It is argued that the plea shows, although it does not, in terms, aver, that the Legislature had authority to convey. The court does not mean to controvert this position, but its admission would not help the case. The matter set forth in the plea, as matter of inducement, may be argumentatively good, may warrant an averment which negatives the averment in the declaration, but does not itself constitute that negative.
Had the plaintiff tendered an issue in fact upon this plea that the Governor was legally empowered to sell and convey the premises, it would have been a departure from his declaration, for the count to which this plea is intended as a bar alleges no want of authority in the Governor. He was therefore under the necessity of demurring.
But it is contended that, although the plea be substantially bad, the judgment overruling the demurrer, is correct because the declaration is defective.
The defect alleged in the declaration is that the [p127] breach is not assigned in the words of the covenant. The covenant is that the Legislature had a right to convey, and the breach is that the Legislature had no authority to convey.
It is not necessary that a breach should be assigned in the very words of the covenant. It is enough that the words of the assignment show, unequivocally, a substantial breach. The assignment under consideration does show such a breach. If the Legislature had no authority to convey, it had no right to convey.
It is, therefore, the opinion of this Court that the Circuit Court erred in overruling the demurrer to the first plea by the defendant pleaded, and that their judgment ought therefore to be reversed, and that judgment on that plea be rendered for the plaintiff.
After the opinion of the court was delivered, the parties agreed to amend the pleadings, and the cause was continued for further consideration.
The cause having been again argued at this term, as has been stated.
Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.
The pleadings being now amended, this cause comes on again to be heard on sundry demurrers, and on a special verdict.
The suit was instituted on several covenants contained in a deed made by John Peck, the defendant in error, conveying to Robert Fletcher, the plaintiff in error, certain lands which were part of a large purchase made by James Gunn and others, in the year 1795, from the State of Georgia, the contract for which was made in the form of a bill passed by the Legislature of that State.
The first count in the declaration set forth a breach [p128] in the second covenant contained in the deed. The covenant is
that the Legislature of the State of Georgia, at the time of passing the act of sale aforesaid, had good right to sell and dispose of the same in manner pointed out by the said act.
The breach assigned is that the Legislature had no power to sell.
The plea in bar sets forth the Constitution of the State of Georgia, and avers that the lands sold by the defendant to the plaintiff were within that State. It then sets forth the granting act, and avers the power of the Legislature to sell and dispose of the premises as pointed out by the act.
To this plea the plaintiff below demurred, and the defendant joined in demurrer.
That the Legislature of Georgia, unless restrained by its own Constitution, possesses the power of disposing of the unappropriated lands within its own limits, in such manner as its own judgment shall dictate, is a proposition not to be controverted. The only question, then, presented by this demurrer, for the consideration of the Court is this: did the then Constitution of the State of Georgia prohibit the Legislature to dispose of the lands which were the subject of this contract in the manner stipulated by the contract?
The question whether a law be void for its repugnancy to the Constitution is, at all times, a question of much delicacy, which ought seldom, if ever, to be decided in the affirmative in a doubtful case. The court, when impelled by duty to render such a judgment, would be unworthy of its station could it be unmindful of the solemn obligations which that station imposes. But it is not on slight implication and vague conjecture that the Legislature is to be pronounced to have transcended its powers, and its acts to be considered as void. The opposition between the Constitution and the law should be such that the judge feels a clear and strong conviction of their incompatibility with each other.
In this case, the court can perceive no such opposition. In the Constitution of Georgia, adopted in the [p129] year 1789, the court can perceive no restriction on the legislative power which inhibits the passage of the Act of 1795. The court cannot say that, in passing that Act, the Legislature has transcended its powers and violated the Constitution. In overruling the demurrer, therefore, to the first plea, the Circuit Court committed no error.
The third covenant is that all the title which the State of Georgia ever had in the premises had been legally conveyed to John Peck, the grantor.
The second count assigns, in substance, as a breach of this covenant that the original grantees from the State of Georgia promised and assured divers members of the Legislature, then sitting in General Assembly that if the said members would assent to, and vote for, the passing of the Act, and if the said bill should pass, such members should have a share of, and be interested in, all the lands purchased from the said State by virtue of such law. And that divers of the said members to whom the said promises were made were unduly influenced thereby, and, under such influence, did vote for the passing of the said bill, by reason whereof the said law was a nullity, &c., and so the title of the State of Georgia did not pass to the said Peck, &c.
The plea to this count, after protesting that the promises it alleges were not made, avers that, until after the purchase made from the original grantees by James Greenleaf, under whom the said Peck claims, neither the said James Greenleaf nor the said Peck, nor any of the mesne vendors between the said Greenleaf and Peck, had any notice or knowledge that any such promises or assurances were made by the said original grantees, or either of them, to any of the members of the Legislature of the State of Georgia. To this plea the plaintiff demurred generally, and the defendant joined in the demurrer. [p130]
That corruption should find its way into the governments of our infant republics and contaminate the very source of legislation, or that impure motives should contribute to the passage of a law or the formation of a legislative contract are circumstances most deeply to be deplored. How far a court of justice would, in any case, be competent, on proceedings instituted by the State itself to vacate a contract thus formed, and to annul rights required under that contract by third persons having no notice of the improper means by which it was obtained is a question which the court would approach with much circumspection. It may well be doubted how far the validity of a law depends upon the motives of its framers, and how far the particular inducements operating on members of the supreme sovereign power of a State to the formation of a contract by that power are examinable in a court of justice. If the principle be conceded that an act of the supreme sovereign power might be declared null by a court in consequence of the means which procured it, still would there be much difficulty in saying to what extent those means much be applied to produce this effect. Must it be direct corruption, or would interest or undue influence of any kind be sufficient? Must the vitiating cause operate on a majority, or on what number of the members? Would the act be null whatever might be the wish of the nation, or would its obligation or nullity depend upon the public sentiment?
If the majority of the Legislature be corrupted, it may well be doubted whether it be within the Province of the judiciary to control their conduct, and if less than a majority act from impure motives, the principle by which judicial interference would be regulated is not clearly discerned.
Whatever difficulties this subject might present when viewed under aspects of which it may be susceptible, this Court can perceive none in the particular pleadings now under consideration.
This is not a bill brought by the State of Georgia to annul the contract, nor does it appear to the Court by [p131] this count that the State of Georgia is dissatisfied with the sale that has been made. The case, as made out in the pleadings, is simply this. One individual who holds lands in the State of Georgia, under a deed covenanting that the title of Georgia was in the grantor, brings an action of covenant upon this deed, and assigns, as a breach that some of the members of the Legislature were induced to vote in favour of the law, which constituted the contract, by being promised an interest in it, and that therefore the act is a mere nullity.
This solemn question cannot be brought thus collaterally and incidentally before the court. It would be indecent in the extreme, upon a private contract, between two individuals, to enter into an inquiry respecting the corruption of the sovereign power of a State. If the title be plainly deduced from a legislative act, which the Legislature might constitutionally pass, if the act be clothed with all the requisite forms of a law, a court, sitting as a court of law cannot sustain a suit brought by one individual against another founded on the allegation that the act is a nullity in consequence of the impure motives which influenced certain members of the Legislature which passed the law.
The Circuit Court, therefore, did right in overruling this demurrer.
The fourth covenant in the deed is that the title to the premises has been in no way constitutionally or legally impaired by virtue of any subsequent act of any subsequent Legislature of the State of Georgia.
The third count recites the undue means practised on certain members of the Legislature, as stated in the second count, and then alleges that, in consequence of these practices and of other causes, a subsequent Legislature passed an act annulling and rescinding the law under which the conveyance to the original grantees was made, declaring that conveyance void, and asserting the title of the State to the lands it contained. The [p132] count proceeds to recite at large, this rescinding act, and concludes with averring that, by reason of this act, the title of the said Peck in the premises was constitutionally and legally impaired and rendered null and void.
After protesting, as before, that no such promises were made as stated in this count, the defendant again pleads that himself and the first purchaser under the original grantees, and all intermediate holders of the property, were purchasers without notice. To this plea there is a demurrer and joinder.
The importance and the difficulty of the questions, presented by these pleadings are deeply felt by the Court. The lands in controversy vested absolutely in James Gunn and others, the original grantees, by the conveyance of the Governor, made in pursuance of an act of assembly to which the Legislature was fully competent. Being thus in full possession of the legal estate, they, for a valuable consideration, conveyed portions of the land to those who were willing to purchase. If the original transaction was infected with fraud, these purchasers did not participate in it, and had no notice of it. They were innocent. Yet the Legislature of Georgia has involved them in the fate of the first parties to the transaction, and, if the act be valid, has annihilated their rights also.
The Legislature of Georgia was a party to this transaction, and for a party to pronounce its own deed invalid, whatever cause may be assigned for its invalidity, must be considered as a mere act of power which must find its vindication in a train of reasoning not often heard in courts of justice.
But the real party, it is said, are the people, and when their agents are unfaithful, the acts of those agents cases to be obligatory.
It is, however, to be recollected that the people can [p133] act only by these agents, and that, while within the powers conferred on them, their acts must be considered as the acts of the people. If the agents be corrupt, others may be chosen, and, if their contracts be examinable, the common sentiment, as well as common usage of mankind, points out a mode by which this examination may be made, and their validity determined.
If the Legislature of Georgia was not bound to submit its pretensions to those tribunals which are established for the security of property, and to decide on human rights, if it might claim to itself the power of judging in its own case, yet there are certain great principles of justice, whose authority is universally acknowledged, that ought not to be entirely disregarded.
If the Legislature be its own judge in its own case, it would seem equitable that its decision should be regulated by those rules which would have regulated the decision of a judicial tribunal. The question was, in its nature, a question of title, and the tribunal which decided it was either acting in the character of a court of justice, and performing a duty usually assigned to a court, or it was exerting a mere act of power in which it was controlled only by its own will.
If a suit be brought to set aside a conveyance obtained by fraud, and the fraud be clearly proved, the conveyance will be set aside as between the parties, but the rights of third persons who are purchasers without notice, for a valuable consideration, cannot be disregarded. Titles, which, according to every legal test, are perfect are acquired with that confidence which is inspired by the opinion that the purchaser is safe. If there be any concealed defect, arising from the conduct of those who had held the property long before he acquired it, of which he had no notice, that concealed defect cannot be set up against him. He has paid his money for a title good at law; he is innocent, whatever may be the guilt of others, and equity will not subject him to the penalties attached to that guilt. All titles would be insecure, and the intercourse [p134] between man and man would be very seriously obstructed if this principle be overturned.
A court of chancery, therefore, had a bill been brought to set aside the conveyance made to James Gunn and others as being obtained by improper practices with the Legislature, whatever might have been its decision as respected the original grantees, would have been bound, by its own rules and by the clearest principles of equity, to leave unmolested those who were purchasers without notice for a valuable consideration.
If the Legislature felt itself absolved from those rules of property which are common to all the citizens of the United States, and from those principles of equity which are acknowledged in all our courts, its act is to be supported by its power alone, and the same power may devest any other individual of his lands if it shall be the will of the Legislature so to exert it.
It is not intended to speak with disrespect of the Legislature of Georgia, or of its acts. Far from it. The question is a general question, and is treated as one. For although such powerful objections to a legislative grant as are alleged against this may not again exist, yet the principle on which alone this rescinding act is to be supported may be applied to every case to which it shall be the will of any legislature to apply it. The principle is this: that a legislature may, by its own act, devest the vested estate of any man whatever, for reasons which shall, by itself, be deemed sufficient.
In this case the Legislature may have had ample proof that the original grant was obtained by practices which can never be too much reprobated, and which would have justified its abrogation so far as respected those to whom crime was imputable. But the grant, when issued, conveyed an estate in fee simple to the grantee, clothed with all the solemnities which law can bestow. This estate was transferrable, and those who purchased parts of it were not stained by that [p135] guilt which infected the original transaction. Their case is not distinguishable from the ordinary case of purchasers of a legal estate without knowledge of any secret fraud which might have led to the emanation of the original grant. According to the well known course of equity, their rights could not be affected by such fraud. Their situation was the same, their title was the same, with that of every other member of the community who holds land by regular conveyances from the original patentee.
Is the power of the Legislature competent to the annihilation of such title, and to a resumption of the property thus held?
The principle asserted is that one Legislature is competent to repeal any act which a former legislature was competent to pass, and that one legislature cannot abridge the powers of a succeeding legislature.
The correctness of this principle, so far as respects general legislation, can never be controverted. But if an act be done under a law, a succeeding legislature cannot undo it. The past cannot be recalled by the most absolute power. Conveyances have been made, those conveyances have vested legal estate, and, if those estates may be seized by the sovereign authority, still that they originally vested is a fact, and cannot cease to be a fact.
When, then, a law is in its nature a contract, when absolute rights have vested under that contract, a repeal of the law cannot devest those rights; and the act of annulling them, if legitimate, is rendered so by a power applicable to the case of every individual in the community.
It may well be doubted whether the nature of society and of government does not prescribe some limits to the legislative power; and, if any be prescribed, where are they to be found if the property of an individual, fairly and honestly acquired, may be seized without compensation? [p136]
To the Legislature all legislative power is granted, but the question whether the act of transferring the property of an individual to the public be in the nature of the legislative power is well worthy of serious reflection.
It is the peculiar province of the legislature to prescribe general rules for the government of society; the application of those rules to individuals in society would seem to be the duty of other departments. How far the power of giving the law may involve every other power, in cases where the Constitution is silent, never has been, and perhaps never can be, definitely stated.
The validity of this rescinding act, then, might well be doubted, were Georgia a single sovereign power. But Georgia cannot be viewed as a single, unconnected, sovereign power, on whose legislature no other restrictions are imposed than may be found in its own Constitution. She is a part of a large empire; she is a member of the American Union; and that Union has a Constitution the supremacy of which all acknowledge, and which imposes limits to the legislatures of the several States which none claim a right to pass. The Constitution of the United States declares that no State shall pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.
Does the case now under consideration come within this prohibitory section of the Constitution?
In considering this very interesting question, we immediately ask ourselves what is a contract? Is a grant a contract?
A contract is a compact between two or more parties, and is either executory or executed. An executory contract is one in which a party binds himself to do, or not to do, a particular thing; such was the law under which the conveyance was made by the Governor. A contract executed is one in which the object [p137] of contract is performed, and this, says Blackstone, differs in nothing from a grant. The contract between Georgia and the purchasers was executed by the grant. A contract executed, as well as one which is executory, contains obligations binding on the parties. A grant, in its own nature, amounts to an extinguishment of the right of the grantor, and implies a contract not to reassert that right. A party is therefore always estopped by his own grant.
Since, then, in fact, a grant is a contract executed, the obligation of which still continues, and since the Constitution uses the general term "contract" without distinguishing between those which are executory and those which are executed, it must be construed to comprehend the latter as well as the former. A law annulling conveyances between individuals, and declaring that the grantors should stand seised of their former estates, notwithstanding those grants, would be as repugnant to the Constitution as a law discharging the vendors of property from the obligation of executing their contracts by conveyances. It would be strange if a contract to convey was secured by the Constitution, while an absolute conveyance remained unprotected.
If, under a fair construction the Constitution, grants are comprehended under the term "contracts," is a grant from the State excluded from the operation of the provision? Is the clause to be considered as inhibiting the State from impairing the obligation of contracts between two individuals, but as excluding from that inhibition contracts made with itself?
The words themselves contain no such distinction. They are general, and are applicable to contracts of every description. If contracts made with the State are to be exempted from their operation, the exception must arise from the character of the contracting party, not from the words which are employed.
Whatever respect might have been felt for the State sovereignties, it is not to be disguised that the framers of the Constitution viewed with some apprehension [p138] the violent acts which might grow out of the feelings of the moment, and that the people of the United States, in adopting that instrument, have manifested a determination to shield themselves and their property from the effects of those sudden and strong passions to which men are exposed. The restrictions on the legislative power of the States are obviously founded in this sentiment, and the Constitution of the United States contains what may be deemed a bill of rights for the people of each State.
No State shall pass any bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law impairing the obligation of contracts.
A bill of attainder may affect the life of an individual, or may confiscate his property, or may do both.
In this form, the power of the legislature over the lives and fortunes of individuals is expressly restrained. What motive, then, for implying, in words which import a general prohibition to impair the obligation of contracts, an exception in favour of the right to impair the obligation of those contracts into which the State may enter?
The State legislatures can pass no ex post facto law. An ex post facto law is one which renders an act punishable in a manner in which it was not punishable when it was committed. Such a law may inflict penalties on the person, or may inflict pecuniary penalties which swell the public treasury. The legislature is then prohibited from passing a law by which a man's estate, or any part of it, shall be seized for a crime which was not declared by some previous law to render him liable to that punishment. Why, then, should violence be done to the natural meaning of words for the purpose of leaving to the legislature the power of seizing for public use the estate of an individual in the form of a law annulling the title by which he holds that estate? The Court can perceive no sufficient grounds for making this distinction. This rescinding act would have the effect of an ex post facto law. It forfeits the estate of Fletcher for a crime not committed by himself, but by those from whom he purchased. [p139] This cannot be effected in the form of an ex post facto law or bill of attainder; why, then, is it allowable in the form of a law annulling the original grant?
The argument in favour of presuming an intention to except a case not excepted by the words of the Constitution is susceptible of some illustration from a principle originally ingrafted in that instrument, though no longer a part of it. The Constitution, as passed, gave the courts of the United States jurisdiction in suits brought against individual States. A State, then, which violated its own contract was suable in the courts of the United States for that violation. Would it have been a defence in such a suit to say that the State had passed a law absolving itself from the contract? It is scarcely to be conceived that such a defence could be set up. And yet, if a State is neither restrained by the general principles of our political institutions nor by the words of the Constitution from impairing the obligation of its own contracts, such a defence would be a valid one. This feature is no longer found in the Constitution, but it aids in the construction of those clauses with which it was originally associated.
It is, then, the unanimous opinion of the Court that, in this case, the estate having passed into the hands of a purchaser for a valuable consideration, without notice, the State of Georgia was restrained, either by general principles which are common to our free institutions or by the particular provisions of the Constitution of the United States, from passing a law whereby the estate of the plaintiff in the premises so purchased could be constitutionally and legally impaired and rendered null and void.
In overruling the demurrer to the third plea, therefore, there is no error.
The first covenant in the deed is that the State of Georgia, at the time of the act of the Legislature thereof entitled as aforesaid, was legally seised in fee of the soil thereof subject only to the extinguishment of part of the Indian title thereon. [p140]
The fourth count assigns, as a breach of this covenant that the right to the soil was in the United States, and not in Georgia.
To this Court, the defendant pleads that the State of Georgia was seised, and tenders an issue on the fact in which the plaintiff joins. On this issue, a special verdict is found.
The jury find the grant of Carolina by Charles Second to the Earl of Clarondon and others, comprehending the whole country from 36 deg. 30 min. north lat. to 29 deg. north lat., and from the Atlantic to the South Sea.
They find that the northern part of this territory was afterwards erected into a separate colony, and that the most northern part of the 35 deg. of north lat. was the boundary line between North and South Carolina. That seven of the eight proprietors of the Carolinas surrendered to George II in the year 1729, who appointed a Governor of South Carolina. That, in 1732, George II granted to the Lord Viscount Percival and others seven eighths of the territory between the Savannah and the Alatamaha, and extending west to the South Sea, and that the remaining eighth part, which was still the property of the heir of Lord Carteret, one of the original grantees of Carolina, was afterwards conveyed to them. This territory was constituted a colony and called Georgia. That the Governor of South Carolina continued to exercise jurisdiction south of Georgia. That, in 1752, the grantees surrendered to the Crown. That, in 1754, a Governor was appointed by the Crown, with a commission describing the boundaries of the colony. That a treaty of peace was concluded between Great [p141] Britain and Spain in 1763 in which the latter ceded to the former Florida, with Fort St. Augustin and the bay of Pensacola. That, in October, 1763, the King of Great Britain issued a proclamation creating four new colonies, Quebec, East Florida, West Florida, and Grenada, and prescribing the bounds of each, and further declaring that all the lands between the Alatamaha, and St. Mary's should be annexed to Georgia. The same proclamation contained a clause reserving, under the dominion and protection of the Crown, for the use of the Indians, all the lands on the western waters, and forbidding a settlement on them or a purchase of them from the Indians. The lands conveyed to the plaintiff lie on the western waters. That, in November, 1763, a commission was issued to the Governor of Georgia in which the boundaries of that Province are described as extending westward to the Mississippi. A commission describing boundaries of the same extent was afterwards granted in 1764. That a war broke out between Great Britain and her colonies which terminated in a treaty of peace acknowledging them as sovereign and independent States. That in April, 1787, a convention was entered into between the States of South Carolina and Georgia settling the boundary line between them.
The jury afterwards describe the situation of the lands mentioned in the plaintiff's declaration in such manner that their lying within the limits of Georgia, as defined in the proclamation of 1763, in the treaty of peace, and in the convention between that State and South Carolina, has not been questioned.
The counsel for the plaintiff rest their argument on a single proposition. They contend that the reservation for the use of the Indians, contained in the proclamation [p142] of 1763, excepts the lands on the western waters from the colonies within whose bounds they would otherwise have been, and that they were acquired by the Revolutionary War. All acquisitions during the War, it is contended, were made by the joint arms, for the joint benefit of the United States, and not for the benefit of any particular State.
The Court does not understand the proclamation as it is understood by the counsel for the plaintiff. The reservation for the use of the Indians appears to be a temporary arrangement suspending for a time the settlement of the country reserved, and the powers of the royal Governor within the territory reserved, but is not conceived to amount to an alteration of the boundaries of the colony. If the language of the proclamation be in itself doubtful, the commissions subsequent thereto which were given to the Governors of Georgia entirely remove the doubt.
The question whether the vacant lands within the United States became a joint property or belonged to the separate States was a momentous question which at one time threatened to shake the American Confederacy to its foundation. This important and dangerous contest has been compromised, and the compromise is not now to be disturbed.
It is the opinion of the Court that the particular land stated in the declaration appears, from this special verdict, to lie within the State of Georgia, and that the State of Georgia had power to grant it.
Some difficulty was produced by the language of the covenant and of the pleadings. It was doubted whether a State can be seised in fee of lands subject to the Indian title, and whether a decision that they were seised in fee might not be construed to amount to a decision that their grantee might maintain an ejectment for them notwithstanding that title.
The majority of the Court is of opinion that the nature of the Indian title, which is certainly to be respected [p143] by all Courts until it be legitimately extinguished, is not such as to be absolutely repugnant to seisin in fee on the part of the State.
Judgment affirmed with costs.