Open main menu


Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

75 U.S. 595

Drehman  v.  Stifle

IN error to the Supreme Court of Missouri; the case being thus:

In 1854, Mrs. Tyler leased to one Drehman, a house and lot in St. Louis for twenty years, that is to say, till 1874; and by the terms of the lease convenanted to keep the said Drehman in lawful possession of the premises during the term for which they were leased to him. In 1860, Mrs. Tyler sold the fee of the premises to one Stifle, who thus became landlord to Drehman, her lessee.

In 1861, during the late rebellion, Stifle, as 'colonel of the home guards,' pursuant to an order from his military superior, took possession of the lot, removed all the buildings, and held and used the property for his own private purposes. Stifle being thus in possession and use of the property, Drehman, proceeding under the statutes of Missouri concerning landlords and tenants, in force when the lease was made, and still in force, brought in 1863 an action of forcible entry and detainer against him, before a justice of the peace, to recover possession of the premises and the value of the rents. The section of the statute of Missouri, under which the suit was brought, enacts that 'the merits of the title shall in no wise be inquired into, on any complaint, which shall be exhibited by virtue of the provisions of the act.' The justice, on the 31st of December, 1863, rendered a judgment in his favor for restitution, for $5000 damages, and for rent at the rate of $60 per month, to be paid from the time of the recovery until restitution should be made, and for costs. Stifle removed the case by appeal to the St. Louis Land Court, where a verdict and judgment were rendered in his favor. Drehman appealed to the Circuit Court of St. Louis County. Before, however, the case came on to be heard there, a constitution of Missouri, adopted in 1865, ordained as follows:

'No person shall be prosecuted in any civil action for or on account of any act by him done, performed or executed, after the first of January, one thousand eight hundred and sixty-one, by virtue of military authority vested in him by the government of the United States, or that of this State, to do such acrs, or in pursuance to orders received by him from any person vested with such authority; and if any action or proceeding shall have heretofore been, or shall hereafter be, instituted against any person for the doing of any such act, the defendant may plead this section in bar thereof.'

The case coming on to be heard in the Circuit Court in May, 1866, that is to say, after the constitution containing the above-quoted clause passed into force, Stifle relied for his defence upon it. Drehman, on the other hand, set up that it was in the face of that clause of the Constitution of the United States, which declares that 'no State shall pass any bill of attainder, . . . or law impairing the obligation of contracts.'

The court instructed the jury, that if the facts established by the evidence to their satisfaction brought the case within this provision of the constitution of Missouri, the defence was valid, and that the defendant was entitled to the verdict. Drehman excepted. The jury found for Stifle, and the court gave judgment accordingly. Drehman, therefore, appealed to the Supreme Court of the State, which affirmed the judgment, and he accordingly brought the case to this court, under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act, for review.

Mr. J. Hughes, for the plaintiff in error (a brief of Mr. J. C. Moody being filed), contended that the clause of the Missouri constitution, by which alone the action of Drehman was defeated, did contain the elements both of a bill of attainder, and of a law impairing the obligation of contracts.

1. It was a bill of attainder. The constitution in which it is attempted to be ordained, was reviewed in Cummings v. Missouri. [1] In that case another clause of the same constitution sought to divest Cummings, a priest, of his power to preach, that is to say, of his right to his profession, by requiring priests to take an oath which he could not take. Here another clause forbids persons to prosecute claims for loss of property, by providing a bar to suits if pending when the ordinance passed. Though the owner is neither charged with nor convicted of a crime, he is deprived of his property without judicial trial as completely as if he were both charged and convicted. If the Convention had declared, by ordinance, that Drehman had committed treason, and that because of his crime his property was forfeited, and his right of action against the defendant barred, this would unquestionably have been a 'bill of pains and penalties.' Is it any less a bill of pains and penalties when it inflicts the penalty without imputing the crime as a foundation? Does the Constitution of the United States prohibit the bill of attainder with a crime imputed as a pretext, and permit an enactment containing all the essential elements of attainder, when there is no pretext assigned?

On this question, Cummings v. Missouri seems to us to be conclusive.

The court there says:

'The deprivation is effected with equal certainty in one case as it would be in the other, but not with equal directness. The purpose of the lawmaker in the case supposed, would be openly avowed; in the case existing it is only disguised. The legal result must be the same, for what cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly. The Constitution deals with substance, not with shadows. Its inhibition was levelled at the thing, not the name.'

That depriving a man of his property is a punishment as well as an injury, can hardly be denied since the cases of Cummings v. Missouri and Ex parte Garland. [2] And the same thing is true as to depriving him of a possession secured to him by the law even irrespectively of the question of merits. He is deprived of a legal right; a prim a facie right and title; which may prove an absolute one in the end.

It is admitted the plaintiff had the right to the property since 1854, by lease extending until 1874; that he obtained two judicial determinations of that right in this cause in 1863; that an appeal was taken by the respondent from such judicial determinations, and pending an appeal that this constitution was adopted by the Convention. The court below says by its instructions, that since the adoption the plaintiff has no right to the property, or, which is the same thing, that the respondent is protected by the new constitution in forcibly depriving the plaintiff of his property, and that the subsequent detainer of it cannot afford any cause of action, under the proceedings in the cause.

2. It impairs the obligation of a contract. By the lease, Mrs. Tyler covenanted to keep her tenant in lawful possession of the premises during the whole term of the lease. This was a contract; it became obligatory upon Stifle, by virtue of his being the assignee of the reversion of the estate. The contract had reference to the laws of the State concerning landlords and tenants, in force when it was made and when the suit was commenced; laws which protected the rights of the landlord and tenant respectively. One of these laws gave a remedy to Drehman to enforce the contract by the proceeding of forcible entry and detainer. That law was yet unrepealed and in force. In 1863 the judicial tribunals rendered a judgment against the defendant, and in favor of the plaintiff, for possession, rents, damages, and costs, found to be due under the contract and the laws then in force. The ordinance pleaded in bar of this action was passed in 1865,-eleven years after the contract was made, four years after the breach alleged and liabilities had accrued, and two years after judgment had been rendered in this cause in favor of the plaintiff. Yet the court says the ordinance, by its retrospective operation, is now a complete bar and defence to this action. Before the ordinance was passed, the defendant was adjudged to owe the plaintiff $7000, upon his obligation assumed in this contract. Since the passage the courts say that there is no liability; that the ordinance is a complete bar, and furnishes a new defence. Does it not impair and annul the obligations of the contract?

Numerous authorities, as early as Sturgis v. Crowninshield, [3] and only ending with Hawthorne v. Calef, [4] show that it does.

Mr. Hoar, Attorney-General, and Mr. M. Blair, contra.

Mr. Justice SWAYNE delivered the opinion of the court.

NotesEdit

^1  4 Wallace, 277.

^2  4 Wallace, 227, 333.

^3  4 Wheaton, 122.

^4  2 Wallace, 110.

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).