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United States Supreme Court

15 U.S. 259

Chirac  v.  Chirac

[Syllabus from pages 259-261 intentionally omitted]

ERROR to the circuit court for the district of Maryland.

John Baptiste Chirac, a native of France, migrated into the United States, in the year 1793, and settled in Maryland. On the 22d of September, 1795, he took the oaths of citizenship, according to the form prescribed by an act of Assembly of the state of Maryland, passed in the year 1779, and the next day received a conveyance in fee of land lying within that state.

On the 6th of July, 1798, he was naturalized as prescribed by the laws of the United States; and, in July, 1799, he died intestate, leaving no legitimate relations other than the plaintiffs, who are natives and residents of France.

Supposing the lands of which he died seized to be escheatable, the state of Maryland conveyed them to John Charles Francis Chirac, his natural son, with a saving of the rights of all persons claiming by devise or descent from the intestate. Under this act, John Charles Francis Chirac took possession of the land of his father, and has remained in possession ever since.

In March, 1809, the defendants in error, who are the heirs at law of John Baptiste Chirac, and subjects of the king of France, brought their ejectment for the land of which their ancestor died seised; and in May, 1815, under the instruction of the court, to which exceptions were taken, obtained a verdict in their favour, on which a judgment was rendered; which judgment is now before the court on a writ of error.

The act of Assembly of the state of Maryland, on the construction of which the cause mainly turned, was passed in 1780, and is entitled 'An act to declare and ascertain the privileges of the subjects of France residing within this state.' The 1st section gives to French subjects the capacity of holding lands within the state, on certain conditions. The 2d section gives to those subjects who may be resident in the state, all the rights of free citizens thereof. The 3d section contains a proviso restricting and limiting the privileges granted by the act, and declaring that nothing therein contained 'shall be construed to grant to those who shall continue subjects of his most christian majesty, and not qualify themselves as citizens of this state, any right to purchase or hold lands, or real estate, but for their respective lives, or for years.' The 4th section enacts, that if any French subject who shall become a citizen of Maryland 'shall die intestate, the natural kindred of such decedent, whether residing in France or elsewhere, shall inherit his or her real estate, in like manner as if such decedent, and his kindred, were the citizens of this state,' with a proviso, that whenever any French subject shall, by virtue of the act, become seised in fee of any real estate, his or her estate, 'after the term of ten years be expired, shall vest in the state, unless the person seised of the same, shall, within that time, either come and settle in, and become a citizen of this state, or enfeoff thereof, some citizen of this or some other of the United States of America.'

March 3d.

Mr. Harper, for the plaintiff in error, and the defendant in the court below. 1. The act of congress abrogating the French treaties, in consequence of the non-fulfilment of their stipulations by France, and the second article of the convention of 1800, stipulating for farther negotiation respecting the claims of the United States for indemnities, and respecting the revival of the treaties, drew after them a virtual repeal of the act of Maryland of 1780; that act being founded on the reciprocity stipulated by the treaties. The intervention of the local legislatures was deemed necessary to carry into effect treaties made by the national government under the confederation. The legislature of Maryland understood it to have been so, for their act is not a literal transcript of the treaty of 1778; it limits and controls the reciprocity stipulated by the treaty. As nobody at that period could conceive the possibility that we should ever cease to maintain the relations of friendship and alliance with France, no time for the duration of the act was limited; but when the treaty was annulled the act fell with it. Consequently, the heirs of John Baptiste Chirae had no inheritable quality. 2. He acquired no capacity to hold by his naturalization under the local law, since, by the constitution, congress alone has the power of prescribing uniform rules of naturalization; and the act of Maryland is a general naturalization law, not a special act authorizing aliens to hold lands, or conferring other particular privileges. If the states could make such a law, the constitution of the United States would be completely evaded; as the citizens of one state are entitled to all the privileges and immunities of citizens in every other state. 3. The heirs of John Baptiste. Chirac have not conformed to the provisions of the act of Maryland by settling in the state and becoming citizens, nor by enfeoffing some person of the lands within ten years from the time when they became seised; and, consequently, their right was gone before the ejectment was brought. The term seisin in the act means, not a seisin in fact, a pedis possessio, but a legal seisin; and the ten years' limitation begins to run after the seisin in law. The technical word enfeoff, as here used, merely refers to the alienation of the land, which may be by bargain and sale, or any other usual mode of conveyance known in the state; and it was not necessary that they should come into the state in order to execute any of these conveyances, or even to make a feoffment.

Mr. Winder and Mr. Mercer, contra. 1. The constitution of the United States, and the laws made under it, do not, ipso jure, repeal a state law relative to the same matter, but only annul such parts of the latter as are inconsistent with the former. The respective states still preserve the right of making naturalization laws, giving certain civil rights to foreigners, without conferring universal political citizenship. 2. The act of Maryland was not founded on the treaty merely; the legislature had other objects of policy in view than a mere comphance with the stipulations of the treaty; the continuance of the act was wholly independent of the treaty. It is a part of the code of Maryland, abstracted from the treaty, and would exist with or without the treaty. It consequently remained in full force and vigour notwithstanding the abrogation of the French treaties in 1798. The time of limitation contained in the act, within which the party is obliged to come and reside in the state, or to enfeoff a citizen, does not refer to a mere seisin in law. The term 'seised,' if unconnected with other expressions, qualifying its import, might, indeed, imply a legal seisin only; but with the injunction to 'enfeoff,' it necessarily imports a seisin in fact, because such a seisin is necessary to enable the party to make a feoffment. 4. But the convention of 1800, which was concluded whilst the defendant in error held an estate in fee simple under the act of Maryland, determinable by their failure to comply with one of the alternative conditions contained in that act, is conclusive of this cause. That convention enables the citizens of both countries to dispose by testament, donation, or otherwise, of their property, whether real or personal, situate in the territories of either, to whomsoever they please; and to succeed as heirs ab intestato, without being naturalized.a The first clause of the article gives a new power to dispose of property held by citizens of either country in the dominions of the other, viz. the power to dispose by testament, or in any other manner. It, of course, repeals so much of the act of Maryland as restricts the power of disposing to the mode of feoffment only; and not only does not prescribe any period of time within which it is to be done, but necessarily gives the lifetime of the party, since it allows a disposition by last will and testament, which can only take effect after the death of the party. The second clause places the citizens of both countries in the same predicament as to inheritances as if they were naturalized. The defendants in error were, by the laws of the state, heirs to John Baptiste Chirac, subject to a liability to have their estate defeated unless they became naturalized. This clause superceded the necessity of naturalization, or, rather, naturalized them for this particular purpose. The further stipulation 'that in case the laws of either of the two states should restrain strangers from the exercise of the rights of property with respect to real estate, such real estate may be sold, or otherwise disposed of, to citizens or inhabitants of the country where it may be,' can only refer to the laws made by the two contracting parties, i. e. France and the United States; not any particular state of our domestic confederacy: for the states of the union, as separate and independent sovereignties are not included.

Art. 7th. No act of theirs could affect the convention. It is to them the supreme law; and no state law incompatible with it can be valid: therefore, that part of the act of Maryland which prescribes only one mode of disposing of real property belonging to Frenchmen, is void. The treaty secures the right to dispose of it in any mode.

1 Bac. Abr. Alien. Letter c. 132. In Notis, parker, 144. 5 Brown's Parl. Cas. 91. The Attorney-General v. Duplessis. which they must either come and settle in the state, &c., or enfeoff a citizen. The policy of the legislature in prescribing this limitation was, that not more than ten years should elapse from the decease of the French proprietor, before the lands should again be held and owned by a citizen, whose interest it might be to cultivate and improve the same for the benefit of the community. It was, therefore, perfectly immaterial by what technical mode of conveyance the property should be conveyed, and whether the seisin of the heirs should be a seisin in fact, or a legal seisin. The conveyance might be by any sufficient deed; and even a feoffment might be made by an attorney, without obtaining actual possession. 3. The stipulation in the convention of 1800 does not, of itself, give to French citizens property which they had not before, nor enlarge or alter their estates in the lands held by them. They must have been legally entitled to property when the convention took place, or must have legally acquired it afterwards. The ancestor of the defendants in error had in his lifetime a fee simple, and died seised thereof; but of this estate he was seised, not as a French citizen, but as a citizen of Maryland; and upon his death his heirs, being aliens, could have had no legal claim to the property, and it would have escheated to the state, had it not been for the act of Maryland. Under that act they became seised of an estate in fee simple, but conditional and liable to be defeated, unless they complied with the terms of the act. Had they, within the ten years, become citizens of the state, they would not have wanted the protection of the treaty, for their property would have been protected as that of citizens. Had they, within the same time, enfeoffed a citizen, the estate would have vested in him, and the protection of the treaty would have been equally superfluous. As the heirs performed neither the one nor the other of these alternative conditions, their estate was defeated at the expiration of the term of ten years, and became vested in the state. From that time the defendants in error have not been seised of any estate to be operated on by the convention; and, consequently, it can give them no right to recover the lands either from the state, or from the plaintiff in error, who claims under the state.

Mr. Martin, in reply. 1. It is a general rule adopted by sovereign states, that the real property within their dominions should not be owned by aliens; not that this universal rule is considered as a deprival of property, the suffering a penalty, or the incurring of a forfeiture, but as an absolute disability to acquire, to hold, and to enjoy the property, founded upon reasons of public policy.b The act of Maryland merely dispenses with this rule to a certain extent, and upon certain conditions: it does not inflict any penalty or forfeiture on the kindred of the decedent; nor create in them any disabilities; nor deprive them of any property; nor infringe any of their rights whatsoever. Consequently, they must show that they have strictly complied with the terms on which this boon has been granted. 2. The moment the French subject, on whom the act confers a capacity to hold, dies, his kindred inherit; and the moment the kindred inherit, they become seised in fee; and the moment they become seised in fee, the time of limitation begins to run, within

Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the court.


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).