Robinson v. Campbell by Thomas Todd
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

16 U.S. 212

Robinson  v.  Campbell


ERROR to the district court of East Tennessee.

This was an action of ejectment brought by the defendant in error, (the plaintiff's lessor in the court below,) against the present plaintiff, and S. Martin, on the 4th of February, 1807, in the district court for the district of East Tennessee, which possessed circuit court powers. The defendant in that court pleaded separately the general issue, as to 400 acres, and disclaimed all right to the residue of the tract specified in the declaration. A verdict was given for the plaintiff in October term, 1812. From the statement contained in the bill of exceptions, taken at the trial of the cause, it appears that the land for which the action was brought, is situated between two lines, run in 1779 by Walker and Henderson, as the boundary lines of Virginia and North Carolina. The former state claimed jurisdiction to the line run by Walker, and the latter to the line run by Henderson. After the separation of Tennessee from North Carolina, the controversy between Virginia and Tennessee, as to boundary, was settled in 1802, by running a line equidistant from the former lines. The land in dispute fell within the state of Tennessee. Both the litigant parties claimed under grants issued by the state of Virginia, the titles to lands derived from the said state having been protected by the act of Tennessee, passed in 1803 for the settlement of the boundary line.

The plaintiff rested his title on a grant, (founded on a treasury warrant) to John Jones, dated August the 1st, 1787, for 3,000 acres; 1,500 acres of which were conveyed to the lessor by Jones, on the 14th of April 1788; and proved possession in the defendant when the suit was commenced.

The defendant, to support his title to the said 400 acres, offered in evidence a grant for the same to Joseph Martin, dated January 1st, 1788, founded on a settlement-right, and intermediate conveyances to himself. He also offered in evidence, that a settlement was made on said land, in 1778, by William Fitzgerald, who assigned his settlement-right to the said Joseph Martin; that a certificate in right of settlement was issued to Martin by the commissioners for adjusting titles to unpatented lands; on which certificate, and on the payment of the composition money, the above grant was issued. This evidence was rejected by the court below. The defendant also offered in evidence a deed of conveyance from the plaintiff's lessor to Arthur L. Campbell, dated January 2d, 1810, for the land in dispute; but the same was also rejected. He also claimed the benefit of the statute of limitations of the state of Tennessee, on the ground that he, and those under whom he claims, had been in continued and peaceable possession of the 400 acres since the year 1788.

The court decided that the statute did not apply. The cause was then brought before this court by writ of error.

     Feb. 24th.

Mr. Law for the plaintiff in error, argued, 1. That the defendant below ought to have been permitted to give evidence showing that his grant had preference in equity over the plaintiff's grant. By the law, as settled in Tennessee, the prior settlement right of the defendant, though an equitable title, might be set up as a sufficient title in an action at law. The opinion of the judge below proceeds on the idea that the Virginia practice must prevail, under which such a title could only be asserted in equity. The acts for carrying into effect the compact settling the boundary, declare that the claims and titles derived from Virginia shall not be affected or prejudiced by the change of jurisdiction. But are the claims and titles less secure, if the forms of legal proceedings of Tennessee be adopted? Is there any difference whether the plaintiff's grant be vacated on the equity side of the court, or rendered inoperative in an action of ejectment? It is admitted, that as to the nature, validity, and construction of contracts, the lex loci must prevail. But the tribunals of one country have never carried their courtesy to other countries so far as to change the form of action, and the course of judicial proceedings, or the time within which the action must be commenced. [1] 2. The deed from the plaintiff's lessor, pending the suit, showed an outstanding title in another, and ought to have prevented the plaintiff from recovering. [2] 3. It is a universal principle that the statute of limitations of the place where the suit is brought is to govern in determining the time within which a suit must be commenced. [3] 4. New exceptions to the operation of the statute of limitations as to real property cannot be constructively established by the courts. [4] The statute of limitations of Tennessee ought to be applied to suits commenced in the courts of Tennessee for lands which were always within the jurisdiction of that state as claimed by her, and which fell within her territory upon the final settlement of the boundary. The title to such lands may be determinable only by the law of Virginia, but the mode of pursuing the remedy on that title must depend upon the lex fori.

The Attorney-General, contra, insisted, that by the compact between the two states, the law of Virginia, was made the law of the titles to these lands. By the settled practice of that state, as well as the established doctrine of the common law, the legal title must prevail in a court of law. The case of real property is an exception to the general rule, as to applying the statute of limitations according to the lex fori, and not according to the lex loci. Generally speaking, suits for such property must be commenced in the courts of the country where the land lies, and, consequently, both the right and the remedy are to be determined by one and the same law. But this is an anomalous case depending upon the peculiar nature and provisions of the compact of 1802, between the two states. The statute of limitations of Tennessee could not operate upon these lands until they were ascertained to lie in Tennessee; and the peculiar rule established by the courts of Tennessee, permitting an equitable title to be asserted in an action at law, would not apply to a controversy concerning titles wholly depending on the law of Virginia. The proceedings in ejectment are fictitious in form, but for all the purposes of substantial justice they are considered as real. If the term expire pending the action, the court will permit it to be enlarged, and no conveyance by the lessor of the plaintiffs while the suit is going on can operate to extinguish the prior lease. The court below, therefore, committed no error in refusing to permit the deed of conveyance from the plaintiff's lessor to be give in evidence in order to establish the existence of an outstanding title.

     Feb. 24th.

Mr. Justice TODD delivered the opinion of the court, and after stating the facts, proceeded as follows:

Notes Edit

  1. Chitty on Bills, 111, note (h.) American Ed. of 1817, and the authorities there cited.
  2. 1 Cruise on Real property, 503, 537.
  3. Chitty on Bills, Ib.
  4. M'Iver v. Ragan, 2 Wheat. 25.

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).

Public domainPublic domainfalsefalse