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United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 595

Edwards  v.  Kearzey


I concur in the judgment in this case, upon the ground that the State law, passed subsequent to the time when the debt in question was contracted, so changed the nature and extent of the remedy for enforcing the payment of the same as it existed at the time as materially to impair the rights and interests which the complaining party acquired by virtue of the contract merged in the judgment.

Where an appropriate remedy exists for the enforcement of the contract at the time it was made, the State legislature cannot deprive the party of such a remedy, nor can the legislature append to the right such restrictions or conditions as to render its exercise ineffectual or unavailing. State legislatures may change existing remedies, and substitute others in their place; and, if the new remedy is not unreasonable, and will enable the party to enforce his rights without new and burden some restrictions, the party is bound to pursue the new remedy, the rule being, that a State legislature may regulate at pleasure the modes of proceeding in relation to past contracts as well as those made subsequent to the new regulation.

Examples where the principle is universally accepted may be given to confirm the proposition. Statutes for the abolition of imprisonment for debt are of that character, and so are statutes requiring instruments to be recorded, and statutes of limitation.

All admit that imprisonment for debt may be abolished in respect to past contracts as well as future; and it is equally well settled that the time within which a claim or entry shall be barred may be shortened, without just complaint from any quarter. Statutes of the kind have often been passed; and it has never been held that such an alteration in such a statute impaired the obligation of a prior contract, unless the period allowed in the new law was so short and unreasonable as to amount to a substantial denial of the remedy to enforce the right. Angell, Lim. (6th ed.), sect. 22; Jackson v. Lamphire, 3 Pet. 280.

Beyond all doubt, a State legislature may regulate all such proceedings in its courts at pleasure, subject only to the condition that the new regulation shall not in any material respect impair the just rights of any party to a pre-existing contract. Authorities to that effect are numerous and decisive; and it is equally clear that a State legislature may, if it thinks proper, direct that the necessary implements of agriculture, or the tools of the mechanic, or certain articles of universal necessity in household furniture, shall, like wearing-apparel, not be liable to attachment and execution for simple-contract debts. Regulations of the description mentioned have always been considered in every civilized community as properly belonging to the remedy to be exercised or not by every sovereignty, according to its own views of policy and humanity.

Creditors as well as debtors know that the power to adopt such regulations reside in every State, to enable it to secure its citizens from unjust, merciless, and oppressive litigation, and protect those without other means in their pursuits of labor, which are necessary to the well-being and the very existence of every community.

Examples of the kind were well known and universally approved both before and since the Constitution was adopted, and they are now to be found in the statutes of every State and Territory within the boundaries of the United States; and it would be monstrous to hold that every time some small addition was made to such exemptions that the statute making it impairs the obligation of every existing contract within the jurisdiction of the State passing the law.

Mere remedy, it is agreed, may be altered, at the will of the State legislature, if the alteration is not of a character to impair the obligation of the contract; and it is properly conceded that the alteration, though it be of the remedy, if it materially impairs the right of the party to enforce the contract, is equally within the constitutional inhibition. Difficulty would doubtless attend the effort to draw a line that would be applicable in all cases between legitimate alteration of the remedy, and provisions which, in the form of remedy, impair the right; nor is it necessary to make the attempt in this case, as the courts of all nations agree, and every civilized community will concede, that laws exempting necessary wearing-apparel, the implements of agriculture owned by the tiller of the soil, the tools of the mechanic, and certain articles or utensils of a household character, universally recognized as articles or utensils of necessity, are as much within the competency of a State legislature as laws regulating the limitation of actions, or laws abolishing imprisonment for debt. Bronson v. Kinzie, 1 How. 311.

Expressions are contained in the opinion of the court which may be construed as forbidding all such humane legislation, and it is to exclude the conclusion that any such views have my concurrence that I have found it necessary to state the reasons which induced me to reverse the judgment of the State 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).