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Bennett v. Butterworth (52 U.S. 669)/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

52 U.S. 669

Bennett  v.  Butterworth

This is a writ of error to the District Court of the United States for the District of Texas.

The common law has been adopted in Texas, but the forms and rules of pleading in common law cases have been abolished, and the parties are at liberty to set out their respective claims and defences in any form that will bring them before the court. And as there is no distinction in its courts between cases at law and equity, it has been insisted in this case, on behalf of the defendant in error, that this court may regard the plaintiff's petition either as a declaration at law or as a bill in equity.

Whatever may be the laws of Texas in this respect, they do not govern the proceedings in the courts of the United States. And although the forms of proceedings and practice in the State courts have been adopted in the District Court, yet the adoption of the State practice must not be understood as confounding the principles of law and equity, nor as authorizing legal and equitable claims to be blended together in one suit. The Constitution of the United States, in creating and defining the judicial power of the general government, establishes this distinction between law and equity; and a party who claims a legal title must proceed at law, and may undoubtedly proceed accoridng to the forms of practice in such cases in the State court. But if the claim is an equitable one, he must proceed according to rules which this court has prescribed (under the authority of the act of August 23d, 1842), regulating proceedings in equity in the courts of the United States.

There is nothing in these proceedings which resembles a bill or answer in equity according to the rules prescribed by this court, nor any evidence stated upon which a decree in equity could be revised in an appellate court. Nor was any equitable title set up by Butterworth, the plaintiff in the court below. He claimed in his petition a legal title to the negroes, which the defendant denied, insisting that he himself was the legal owner. It was a suit at law to try a legal title.

The defendant (Bennett) in his plea or answer claimed under an award to which Butterworth and a certain Junius Amis and a certain John D. Amis were parties; and averred that, in execution of this award, the said negroes had been delivered by Butterworth to John D. Amis as his property, and by him afterwards transferred to Bennett for a valuable consideration. To this plea Butterworth replied, that all the parties to the submission and decision in the plea set out did not assent and agree to the same, and that Butterworth did not sell, convey, and deliver the negroes in the petition mentioned, in compliance with the terms, or any of the terms, of the said decision. And upon these allegations a jury was sworn, who found for Butterworth (the plaintiff in the court below) in the following words: 'We, the jury, find for the plaintiff twelve hundred dollars, the value of the four negro slaves in suit, with six and a quarter cents damages.'

And the record proceeds to state, that thereupon the plaintiff (Butterworth), by his attorney, in open court, released the said judgment for $1,200; and thereupon the court adjudged that he recover of the defendant the four negroes mentioned in his petition, and the six and a quarter cents assessed by the jury, and his costs.

It does not appear whether any direction to the jury, as to the law of the case, was asked for by either of the parties, or given by the court; we have nothing but the pleadings, confused and loose as they are, and the verdict and the judgment.

Now if any thing is settled in proceedings at law where a jury is impanelled to try the facts, it is, that the verdict must find the matter in issue between the parties, and the judgment of the court must conform to and follow the verdict.

But here the matter in issue was the property in these negroes, and the verdict does not find that they are the property of the plaintiff or the defendant, but finds for the plaintiff their value, which was not in issue. It ought, therefore, to have been set aside upon the motion of either party, as no judgment could lawfully be entered upon it. It was a verdict for a matter different from that which they were impanelled to try.

In the next place, if any judgment could have been rendered on the verdict, it ought to have been a judgment for the money found by the jury. For the trial of facts by a jury would be of very little value, if, upon a verdict for money to a certain amount, the court could infer that the jury intended to find something else, and give a judgment for property instead of money. And lastly, when the plaintiff, in the District Court, released the $1,200 found by the jury, there was nothing of the verdict remaining, upon which the court could act or give judgment for either party, but the six and a quarter cents damages which the jury found in addition to the value.

The judgment is evidently erroneous, and must be reversed. And as these errors are patent upon the record, they are open to revision here, without any motion in arrest of judgment, or exception taken in the District Court.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the District Court of the United States for the District of Texas, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this court, that the judgment of the said District Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby, reversed, with costs, and that this cause be, and the same is hereby, remanded to the said District Court, with directions to award a venire facias de novo.


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).