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United States Supreme Court

80 U.S. 465

Caujolle  v.  Ferri E

ERROR to the Circuit Court for the District of New York; the case being thus:

The Revised Statutes of New York, on the subject of granting letters of administration, thus enact:

'The surrogate of each county shall have sole and exclusive power within the county for which he may be appointed, to grant letters of administration of the goods, &c., of persons dying intestate-when an intestate at or immediately previous to his death was an inhabitant of the county of such surrogate. [1]

'Administration, in case of intestacy, shall be granted to the relatives of the deceased, who would be entitled to succeed to his personal estate.' [2]

By the further terms of the statute the surplus of an intestate's personal estate, remaining after payment of debts, shall be distributed, if there be no husband or wife, equally to and among the children and such as legally represent them, or if there be no children, and no representatives of a child, then the next of kin in equal degree to the deceased, &c. [3]

To secure a competent person, a large discretion is intrusted to the surrogate. He may exclude minors, aliens, intemperate persons, &c.

With these provisions of the code in force, Jeanne Du Lux, a woman of French extraction, died November 15th, 1854, at an advanced age, in the city of New York, intestate, leaving a large personal estate, to be administered and distributed according to the laws of the place of her domicile.

Within a month of her decease, John Pierre Ferri e applied to the surrogate of the county of New York for letters of administration on her estate, claiming them on the ground that he was her only child, and, therefore, her sole heir at law and next of kin. This application was opposed by the public administrator, an officer who, in the city of New York, is entitled to administer upon the estate of deceased persons where there are no next of kin, and the French consul was allowed to contest for the benefit of any party in interest in France. During the pendency of these proceedings, Benoit Julien Caujolle, Bert Barthelemy Caujolle, and Mauretta Elie, with their respective wives, appeared before the surrogate and asked to be heard, alleging that they were the next of kin, and for that reason, entitled to intervene in the matter of the administration, and 'to share upon the distribution of the estate;' and asking to receive their distributive share of the same. The prayer of their petition was granted, and after this was done the French consul withdrew from the contest. The only question involved in the application for administration was, whether Ferri e was the legitimate child of Jeanne Du Lux, and all the proofs taken and admitted related to that issue alone. As Ferri e was conceded to have been born in France, a commission was issued to take testimony in that country regarding the real relationship he bore to the said Jeanne Du Lux. This commission was executed and returned to the surrogate, with a large mass of oral evidence on the subject, together with documents and extracts from public records.

The case came to a hearing on the 15th day of September, 1856, on the proofs taken in France, and at home, and the surrogate rendered the following decree:

'In the matter of the Estate of Jeanne Du Lux, deceased.

'Upon taking proof of all the parties, who have appeared in this matter, and after hearing counsel in behalf of John Pierre Ferri e, claiming to be the son of the intestate, and counsel in behalf of the public administrator, in opposition thereto, and counsel in behalf of Benoit Julien Caujolle, Bert Barthelemy Caujolle, and Mauretta Elie, and their respective wives, claiming as next of kin of said intestate, it is ordered, adjudged, and decreed that letters of administration upon the estate of said Jeanne Du Lux be granted, and issue to the said John P. Ferri e, as the legitimate son and sole next of kin of the said intestate, or to said Ferri e, and such person as may be joined with him, under the statute, on giving the proper security required by law.'

An appeal was taken from this decree to the Supreme Court of the State, by Benoit Julien Caujolle, acting for himself and the other persons in France, and the decree was affirmed. While the case was pending in the Supreme Court, on application of the appellant there, additional evidence was received, not heard by the surrogate, tending to show the illegitimacy of Ferri e. Notwithstanding this additional evidence, the decision of the surrogate was affirmed, and it was reaffirmed on a subsequent appeal to the Court of Appeals. It was on this final decision in his favor that administration of his mother's estate was granted to Ferri e.

In a short time after the decision against them in the highest court of the State of New York, the persons already named living in France who asserted themselves to be the next of kin of Jeanne Du Lux filed their bill against Ferri e and the person who had been joined with him under the statute in the court below for distribution.

To this bill the defendants pleaded in bar the decision of the State courts on the contest for administration, as an adjudication between the same parties of the very point in issue, by a tribunal having jurisdiction of the subject-matter. This plea was overruled, and the cause, after answer, replication, and the taking of proofs, was heard on its merits, and the legitimacy of Ferri e again established. Appeal was taken to this court by the other side, from this decision. The record brought up the whole evidence on the question of legitimacy; parol and documentary, French and American.

Mr. Whitehead, for the appellants, arranging it with order and clearness, argued forcibly that the evidence failed to establish the legitimacy.

Mr. S. P. Nash, contra, and endeavoring to infer from it a different conclusion, contended, in addition and as a more principal point, that in view of the language of the Revised Statutes of New York, which made it obligatory on the surrogate to grant the administration 'to the relatives of the deceased who would be entitled to succeed to his personal estate,' the question of Ferrie's legitimacy-there having been no question of alienage, minorship, or bad moral habits, or other personal disqualification in the case-was necessarily decided; that the complainants were accordingly estopped by the judgment of the surrogate from going into the consideration of the evidence of that question, and that the court below had therefore erred in not sustaining the plea in bar.

Mr. Whitehead, in reply, denied that Ferrie's relationship had been otherwise than incidentally in question, and that a decision of a surrogate on a question of granting letters-a matter largely one of practice, where great discretion was allowed, and where the matter was passed on summarily-had that conclusive character which belonged to a judgment directly on a point in issue and brought the case within the doctrine of res adjudicata. The court below, he argued, had therefore not erred in not sustaining the plea in bar.

Mr. Justice DAVIS delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  2 Revised Statutes, 73, § 23.

^2  2 Revised Statutes, 73, § 74.

^3  Ib. 96, § 75, sub 4, 5.

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).