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United States Supreme Court

74 U.S. 425

Payne  v.  Hook

ANN PAYNE, a citizen of Virginia, exhibited her bill in the Circuit Court of the United States for Missouri, against Zadoc Hook, public administrator of Calloway County, in that State, and his sureties on his official bond, all citizens of Missouri, to obtain her distributive share in the estate of her brother, Fielding Curtis, who died intestate, in 1861, and whose estate was committed to the charge of the public administrator, by order of the County Court of Calloway County. It appeared that Curtis never married, and that his nearest of kin were entitled to distribution of his estate. The bill, without mentioning of what State they were citizens, and without making them complainants, set forth the names of the distributees, brothers or sisters, like the complainant, of the intestate, or their children. The bill charged gross misconduct on the part of the administrator; that he had made false settlements with the Court of Probate; withheld a true inventory of the property in his hands; used the money of the estate for his private gain; and obtained from the claimant, by fraudulent representations, a receipt in full for her share of the estate, on the payment of a less sum than she was entitled to receive. The object of the bill was to obtain relief against these fraudulent proceedings, and to compel a true account of administration, in order that the real condition of the estate can be ascertained, and the complainant paid what justly belongs to her. It appeared from the bill that Hook had not yet made his final settlement.

The defendant demurred generally, and without assigning any specific grounds for the demurrer. On the argument of the demurrer below, the demurrer was endeavored to be supported,

1. Because, in Massouri, exclusive jurisdiction over all disputes concerning the duties or accounts of administrators, until final settlement, is given to the local county court, which is the Court of Probate; and because, as the administration complained of was still in progress in the County Court of Calloway County, resort was to be had to that court to correct the accounts of the administrator, if fraudulent or erroneous.

2. Because the other distributees were not made parties; and so that the case was without proper parties.

3. Because the sureites of the administrator were joined in the proceeding.

4. Because the bill was multifarious.

The court below sustained the demurrer, and the complainant electing to abide by her pleading, the bill was dismissed, and the case brought here by appeal.

Mr. Napton, in support of the decree below:

1. It is perfectly settled, in Missouri, that a court of chancery, under its laws, cannot grant the relief asked in this case until the jurisdiction of the Probate Court is exhausted, or the final settlement of accounts made. [1] No such settlement was here made.

The question then is, will the Federal court, sitting in Missouri, when called upon to interpret State laws in a case where the jurisdiction is given solely because of the noncitizenship of one of the parties, give a relief which the State courts could not?

The chancery jurisdiction of the Federal courts is, we concede, the same throughout the Union; and conferred by the Judiciary Act and the Constitution. What is equity and what is law does not either, with these courts, depend on the State laws or codes of practice.

But the point is, that upon the very principles of equity law, borrowed from England and adopted here, this case ceases to be one of equitable cognizance (or legal cognizance either), just as well in the Federal courts as in the State courts, because of the peculiar structure of the probate system in Missouri, and because the State laws creating that system, and the adjudged construction of those laws, will be enforced in this tribunal just as they would be in a State tribunal, and not overturned or disregarded.

It this is not so, we have the anomaly of citizens not of Missouri, having rights in Missouri and under Missouri laws, which the citizens of Missouri have not; and we put the former not only on an equality with the latter, but actually on a superiority to them. Such a system would be anything else than harmonious. Mereover, it would overturn the whole system of probate jurisdiction in Missouri, so far as persons outside of that State are concerned; for if the United States courts, when called on to construe the Missouri laws concerning administration, &c., can entertain such a bill as the present, contrary to the received practice in this State, then creditors' bills, legatees' bills, bills for marshalling assets, &c., which are common in other States and in England, although unknown in Missouri, would be equally admissible, and thus our system would be completely overturned.

In Ewing v. City of St. Louis, [2] the point seems adjudicated:

'A non-resident complainant can ask no greater relief in the courts of the United States than he could obtain were he to resort to the State courts. If in the latter courts equity would afford no relief, neither will it in the former.'

The exclusive jurisdiction of the Probate Court of Missouri until a final settlement, is a matter not affecting the chancery jurisdiction as a mere remedy, but in the nature of a right. It is, in effect, a species of limitation law, and so the State tribunals regard it, for there is nothing in the equity law of Missouri different from the equity law of this court.

The point thus made is the principal ground of the demurrer. But,

2. The other distributees having been as much interested as the complainant, would properly have been parties. As matters now stand, the public administrator is liable to be harassed by as many suits as there are distributees.

3. The sureties are not liable until their principal fails to pay. There is then a complete and adequate remedy against them at law, and on their bond. There is no reason to make them parties in a proceeding like this, even supposing the claim against the principal well founded,-a matter denied.

4. The bill is multifarious. It seeks a rescission of a contract, the overhauling of inventories, accounts, &c., correcting of settlements, and for general relief.

Mr. Glover, contra.

Mr. Justice DAVIS delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  Overton v. McFarland, 15 Missouri, 312; Picot v. Biddle, 35 Ib. 29.

^2  5 Wallace, 419.

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).