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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

25 U.S. 370

Mason  v.  Haile

THIS was an action of debt, brought in the Circuit Court of Rhode Island, upon two several bonds given by the defendant, Haile, to the plaintiff, Mason, and one Bates, whom the plaintiff survives, one of which bonds was executed on the 14th, and the other on the 29th of March, 1814. The condition in both bonds was the same except as to dates and sums, and is as follows:

'The condition of the above obligation is such, that if the above bounden Nathan Haile, now a prisoner in the State's jail, in Providence, within the county of Providence, at the suit of Mason and Bates, do, and shall from henceforth continue to be a true prisoner, in the custody, guard, and safe-keeping of Andrew Waterman, keeper of said prison, and in the custody, guard, and safe keeping of his deputy, officers, and servants, or some one of them, within the limits of said prison, until he shall be lawfully discharged, without committing any manner of escape or escapes, during the time of restraint, then this obligation to be void, or else to remain in full force and virtue.'To the declaration upon these bonds, the defendant pleaded several pleas, the substance of which was, that in June, 1814, after giving the bonds, the defendant presented a petition to the legislature of Rhode Island, praying for relief, and the benefit of an act passed in June, 1756, entitled 'an act for the relief of insolvent debtors,' and that, in the mean time, all proceedings against him for debt might be stayed, and he be liberated from jail, on giving bonds to return to jail in case his petition shall not be granted. Upon this petition, the legislature, in February, 1815, passed the following resolution: 'On the petition of Nathan Haile, praying, for the reasons therein stated, that the benefit of an act, entitled, 'An act for the relief of insolvent debtors,' passed in the year 1756, be extended to him, voted, that said petition be continued till the next session of this assembly; and that, in the mean time, all proceedings against him, the said Haile, on account of his debts, be stayed; and that the said Haile be liberated from his present confinement, in the jail, in the county of Providence, on his giving sufficient bond to the sheriff of said county, conditioned to return to jail in case said petition is not granted.' That, on the 28th of February, 1815, he gave sufficient bond, with surety, to the sheriff, conditioned to return to jail, in case the petition should not be granted, and, thereupon, the sheriff did liberate and discharge him from his said confinement, in said jail, and permit him to go at large, out of said Waterman's custody, and the custody of the keeper of said prison, his deputy, officers, and servants, and out of the limits of said jail and jail-yard; and he, said Haile, did, upon being so liberated, depart and go at large out of the same accordingly, and so continued at large and liberated, until the prayer of said petition was granted by the legislature, at the February session, 1816, and ever since, as lawfully he might. That, in February, 1816, the legislature, upon a due hearing, granted the prayer of the defendant's petition, and passed the following resolution: 'On the petition of Nathan Haile, of Foster, praying, for the reasons therein stated, that the benefit of an act passed in June, 1756, for the relief of insolvent debtors, may be extended to him; voted, that the prayer of the petition be, and the same is hereby granted.' That the defendant afterwards, in pursuance of the above resolution, and of the laws of the State, received in due form, from the proper Court, a judgment, 'that he should be, and thereby was, fully discharged of and from all debts, duties, contracts, and demands, of every name, nature, and kind, outstanding against him debts due to the State aforesaid, and to the United States, excepted, and from all imprisonment, arrest, and restraint of his person therefor.'

To the pleas so pleaded the plaintiff demurred; there was a joinder in demurrer; and, on the argument of the cause, the opinions of the judges of the Court below were opposed, upon the question whether the defendant was entitled to judgment, on the ground that the matters set forth on his part in his pleas, were sufficient to bar the action, or whether the plaintiff was entitled to judgment upon the demurrers and joinders. The question was thereupon certified to this Court for final decision. Feb. 9th.

The cause was argued by Mr. Webster and Mr. Bliss, for the plaintiff, and by Mr. Whipple and Mr. Wheaton, for the defendant.

On the part of the plaintiff, it was argued, that the acts of the legislature of Rhode Island of February, 1815, and of February, 1816, liberating the person of the defendant from imprisonment, and reviving in his favour an obsolete insolvent act of the colonial legislature, passed in the year 1756, were (in the strictest sense) laws impairing the obligation of contracts. They interfered with an actually vested right of the creditor, acquired under existing laws, and entitling him to a particular remedy against the person of his debtor. Upon the narrowest construction which had ever been given to the prohibition in the constitution of the United States, they impaired the obligation of the bonds now in question; which, though a part of the judicial proceedings to enforce the execution of the primary contract, were still 'contracts,' within the letter and spirit of the constitution. The obligation of these contracts was entirely destroyed by these legislative acts, which were not general laws, but private acts, prefessedly intended for the relief of the party in the particular case. They might even be considered void on general principles, independent of the positive prohibition in the constitution, as being retrospective laws interfering with vested rights. The law of 1756 was no longer in force in Rhode Island, and the reference to it in the acts of 1815, and 1816, could only have the effect of reviving it in the particular case, and was tantamount to the enactment of a new law with similar provisions. But the acts now in question were clearly retrospective acts of legislation, impairing the obligation of contracts in existence when the acts were passed; and, consequently, the case fell within the principles determined by the majority of the Court in Ogden v. Saunders. [a]

For the defendant, it was insisted, that although the act of 1756 was not in force (as a general and permanent law) when the bonds were given, yet the statutes of 1798, and 1812, provide for relief in cases of insolvency; which is always granted by referring to the act of 1756, and reviving its provisions in favour of the individual. These statutes, together with the established usage under them, making part of the unwritten law of the State, form a system or code of insolvent laws, authorizing the debtor to petition in the manner prescribed by the act of 1756, constituting the legislature a Court to hear and determine it as a case between debtor and creditor, [b] and requiring an assignment of the debtor's property for the benefit of all his creditors. The local legislature possesses sovereign power over the remedy, in its own Courts, for the enforcement of contracts made within its own territory; [c] and the acts under which the prison bonds were given, as well as those under which the discharge was obtained, are a part of the process laws of the State, which it has a right to make, alter, and repeal, at its pleasure. The bonds in question could hardly be considered as contracts within the meaning of the constitutional prohibition, since there is but one voluntary party to them. They are rather a part of the judicial process for enforcing the performance of contracts, and the collection of debts. The legislative resolution of February, 1815, is not void on account of its dependence on the act of insolvency of 1816, because the latter, though it professes to discharge both person and property, (and, therefore, may be void in part,) is not entirely void, it being a present discharge executed, and, therefore, void only for the excess. But, admitting the act of 1816 to be entirely void, that of 1815 has no necessary connexion with, or dependence upon it. If the resolution of 1815 would have been a valid discharge from imprisonment in close jail, it must be a valid discharge from the limits, as it does not impail the contract for the liberty of the yard. It does not impair it, because that contract is part of a general system, or code of laws, regulating the remedy in regard to imprisonment for debt; and taken in connexion with that system, it is plain, that the legislature, when they provided the bond as a security for the creditor, did not mean to deprive themselves of the power of entirely liberating the debtor. The words 'lawful discharge' are general, and necessarily include all discharges which were lawful previous to the execution of the bond. And even if the resolution of 1816 is to be considered not as the sentence of a Court of justice, but as a special law, future in its operation, it does not impair the obligation of the contract, because the bond, by necessary construction, must be taken to refer to future laws, and is to be governed by the laws of the State, general or special, in force at the time of the discharge. Whatever these laws provide shall be a 'lawful discharge,' is a 'lawful discharge,' within the meaning of the laws under which the bonds were taken, since all these laws are made by the same legislative authority, having sovereign control over the subject matter.

Mr. Justice THOMPSON delivered the opinion of the Court.


^a  Ante, p. 213.

^b  Olney v. Andrews, 3 Dall. 308. Calder v. Bull, 3 Dall. 386.

^c  Sturges v. Crowninshield, 4 Wheat. Rep. 200, 201.

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).