Doe v. Carpenter/Dissent Campbell

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Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

59 U.S. 297

Doe  v.  Carpenter

Mr. Justice CAMPBELL.

The circuit court of Vanderburgh county, Indiana, exercising chancery jurisdiction, in 1842, pronounced a decree, appointing three commissioners to make deeds of conveyance, release, and partition to the plaintiffs in the suit, of certain lots in the town of Lamasco, in that county, and which embrace the land included in this suit, according to an agreement for a partition made by a portion of the plaintiffs and James B. McCall, the ancestor of the lessors of the plaintiff in this cause, and also of a sale and conveyance by him to one Stewart of his undivided interest in the property, and directed that the deeds should convey the fee-simple to the complainants respectively.

The deeds were executed by the commissioners, were reported to the court, and were confirmed by an order.

This decree was rendered in a chancery cause, prosecuted by persons who had held in common the site of the town of Lamasco with McCall, and who had entered into the agreement, by which specified lots were set apart to each of the tenants, and for which mutual conveyances were to be made, and one Stewart, on whose behalf it was alleged that, after the agreement, and before deeds were made, McCall had sold and conveyed to him his entire undivided interest in the tract.

The object of the bill was to perfect in the complainants, according to the agreement of partition and the sale and conveyance to Stewart, their titles. One of the children of McCall was served with process, and two were called in by publication, and a guardian ad litem was appointed for the minors. The prayer of the bill was for the appointment of commissioners to make the conveyances according to the agreement and the sale.

The defendants claiming to hold the lands under these complainants, offered the record of the proceedings in evidence upon the trial in the circuit court, which was opposed, for the reason that the court had no jurisdiction, and for fraud, apparent on the face of the bill, the evidence was admitted as conclusive of the title, and an issue was formed on the bill of exceptions for this court.

The decree operates upon a title to lands within the county and State where the circuit court, that rendered it, was held. That court possesses, under the constitution and laws of Indiana, a general chancery jurisdiction, and a special authority to appoint commissioners to execute decrees like the present. One of the defendants was before the court by process, and was defended by a guardian, and the others by publication, according to the authorized practice of that court. This being the state of the record-the jurisdiction of the court spreading over the subject-matter, and embracing the parties-the inquiry arises, on what principle can its authority be impeached in a collateral proceeding? It is said, that, it being apparent form the bill that James B. McCall had sold his entire interest in the town of Lamasco to Stewart, that Stewart might have completed his agreement for a partition, and that the heirs of McCall, having inherited no estate, were not proper parties to the bill, and that the deeds of conveyance, release, and partition, under the decree, did not conclude their rights. But who is to decide whether they were proper parties to the bill, and whether it was proper to terminate all contest upon the title, by requiring them to release their rights, whatever they might happen to be to the plaintiffs? Upon whom was the duty devolved by the constitution and laws of Indiana, to determine whether the bill was framed according to the course of chancery practice, and the decree a proper expression of chancery jurisprudence? Certainly not this court, nor the circuit court of the United States for Indiana.

A court of the State of Indiana, with a plenary jurisdiction in chancery, having the subject-matter and parties within that jurisdiction, has pronounced the decree, from whence comes the power of this court to pronounce its jurisdiction usurped, and its decree a nullity? This court, of old, was accustomed to say, 'that a judgment or execution irreversible by a superior court, cannot be declared a nullity by any authority of law, if it has been rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction of the parties and the subject-matter, with authority to use the process it has issued; it must remain the only test of the respective rights of the parties to it.' And also, 'the line which separates error in judgment from the usurpation of power is very definite, and is precisely that which denotes the cases where a judgment or decree is reversible only by an appellate court, or may be declared a nullity collaterally, when it is offered in evidence in an action concerning the matter adjudicated, or purporting to have been so. In the one case it is a record imputing absolute verity; in the other, mere waste paper. 10 Pet. 449.

We have only now to ascertain the extent of the jurisdiction of courts of chancery in the matters of partition, and to quiet title by removing dormant equities, and the effect of decrees in such cases. The first branch of the inquiry is satisfactorily answered by Judge Story. 'In all cases of partition,' he says, 'a court of equity does not act merely in a ministerial character and in obedience to the call of the parties who have a right to the partition, but it founds itself upon its general jurisdiction as a court of equity, and administers its relief ex aequo et bono, according to its own notions of general justice and equity between the parties. It will, therefore, by its decree, adjust all the equitable rights of the parties interested in the estate, and courts of equity, in making these adjustments, will not confine themselves to the mere legal rights of the original tenants in common, but will have regard to the legal and equitable rights of all other parties interested in the estate, which have been derived from any of the original tenants in common.'

Such being the enlarged jurisdiction upon the subject-matter, the question arises as to the effect of the decrees upon the titles that are, or might have been, involved in a suit of that nature.

In Reese v. Holmes, 5 Rich. Eq. 531, the court determined that the parties to such a record were concluded by the decree from showing that they had a greater estate than, or one derived from a different source from, that set out in the proceedings and established by the decree.

The court said, if any relievable fraud or mistake entered into the decree when it was pronounced, the party affected by it might have been heard, if he had come within a reasonable time, with a direct proceeding to set the proceeding aside; but while it stands, it is the standard to which every party taking under it must resort for the measure of his rights, and cannot be set aside or modified collaterally.' In Stewart v. Migell, 8 Ind. Eq. 242, the court decide that a bill cannot be supported to set aside a decree formerly made between parties, though it be alleged that the facts found by the court did not exist; and that the decree was conclusive, in respect to the thing which the parties had, or admitted, or it was declared they had, and also in respect to the share to which each was entitled in severalty, and to the parcel so allotted. In Mills v. Witherington, 2 Dev. & B. 433, where land belonging to one in severalty was included in the petition as land held in common, and allotted to another in severalty, it was held, in an action of ejectment, that the lessor of the plaintiff, who had been a party to the judgment, 'was concluded, bound, and estopped, to controvert any thing contained in it. In Clapp v. Bromagham, 9 Cowen, 537, the court say, 'that the judgment in partition, it is true, does not change the possession, but it establishes the title, and in an ejectment must be conclusive.' 1 Md. Ch. Dec. 455; 14 Geo. 521; 17 Vesey, 355; 29 Maine, 128.

I do not consider it necessary to inquire, whether the fact of an absolute sale and a perfect conveyance by McCall to Stewart did not relieve the heirs from the duty of completing the agreement of their ancestor; nor do I consider it necessary to inquire whether, having such a sale and conveyance, Stewart had a good case to go into chancery to cut off possible but unpublished equities; nor do I consider it necessary to inquire whether there was sufficient or any evidence to support the decree. Those questions were all subjec to the jurisdiction of the circuit court of Vanderburgh county, and might have been revised in the supreme court of Indiana.

Those courts had entire jurisdiction of the parties and the cause, and its decree cannot be collaterally impeached. I am authorized to say that Mr. Justice DANIEL concurs in this opinion.

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).