Satterlee v. Matthewson

Satterlee v. Matthewson by Bushrod Washington
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

27 U.S. 380

Satterlee  v.  Matthewson

THIS case came before the court on a writ of error to the supreme court of the state of Pennsylvania.

In 1784 or 1785, Elisha Satterlee, the father of the plaintiff in error, and Elisha Matthewson, the husband of the defendant in error, the defendant in error being the sister of Elisha Satterlee, went to a large body of land in Lezerne county, Pennsylvania, part of which was the land in controversy, and both took possession of the same, under, as is believed, a supposed title from the Susquehanna Company. They worked on the lands in partnership, the same lying on both sides of the Susquehanna river, until 1790, when it was agreed that Matthewson, who had a house on the west side of the river, should occupy the land before held in common, on that side, and become the tenant of Satterlee for his portion of the land on the said west side of the river; and Elisha Satterlee moved on the lands on the east side, on precisely the same terms: that is, that he should become the tenant of Matthewson for his portion of the land on the said east side of the river. By this arrangement each became possessed, in severalty, of the particular portion of the lands thus allotted to him, and the tenant to the other of portions of the land before held in common; and it was expressly agreed that either of the parties might put an end to the tenancy at the end of any one year; and in that case, each was to be put into possession of his own lands.

In 1805 Elisha Matthewson died, having bequeathed by his will to his widow during life, and to his children after her death, the interest he had in the said land. Elisha Satterlee repeatedly, after Matthewson's death, acknowledged the original bargain, and that he was a tenant of Matthewson's part; but he wished to buy it; he wished to give other lands for it, &c. &c.; but his sister could only sell for life, and her children were minors. In 1810, she built a house on part of the tract, and put a tenant in it; but her brother would not give her possession of the part he had in cultivation. In 1811 she made application to the land office of Pennsylvania, and on the 7th of January 1812 took out a warrant in her name in trust for her children, and had the land surveyed, and obtained a patent for it from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She stated in her application, an improvement made by her husband in 1785; and paid interest to the state on the purchase moneys from the date of the improvement. After his sister's warrant, survey, and return, Elisha Satterlee purchased a Pennsylvania title commencing in 1769, and consummated by a patent from the commonwealth in 1781, which he alleged covered the land in question; but he directed the deed to be made to his son, J. F. Satterlee, the plaintiff in error; and 1813 an ejectment was instituted in the name of the son against the father, in pursuance of a plan of the father's to release him from the situation of tenant to his sister. By a law of Pennsylvania then in existence, but since repealed, a rule of reference might be entered the same day the writ was taken out, and by diligence a plaintiff might obtain a report of arbitrators, which had the effect of a judgment, before the return day of the writ.

This proceeding was, by means of the father's waiving all objections as to time and notice, so carried on, as that the son not only had judgment, but a writ of possession before the return of the writ.

J. F. Satterlee then gave to his father a lease for life of the land for the consideration of one dollar. Elizabeth Matthewson instituted an ejectment. J. F. Satterlee, in 1817, procured himself to be entered co-defendant in the suit, and his father being dead, is now sole defendant.

On the trial of the cause the defendant made title under an application of John Stoner of 3d of April 1769. Stoner conveyed to Mr Slough, who in 1780 conveyed to Joseph Wharton. A patent issued to Wharton in 1781 and he in April 1812 conveyed to the defendant. The judge of the court of common pleas of Bradford county instructed the jury, that if they found the ejectment brought by the son of J. F. Satterlee, in whose name the conveyance was taken, was actually instituted by the father, though in his son's name as agent for himself, and that the suit was all a trick, and so conducted on purpose to prevent his sister from interfering or being heard, that he was still her tenant, as much as if no such proceeding had taken place. But if the son was the real purchaser, and the suit was instituted and conducted bona fide, and the lease to the father during life for a dollar a year was bona fide, that then E. Satterlee having been evicted by due course of law, might take a lease from him who recovered; and in that case, the relation of landlord and tenant between him and his sister was at an end, and the cause must be decided upon the respective titles of the parties. But if they found him still a tenant, he could not set up against his landlord an adverse title, purchased during his life. But he must restore his possession to his landlord, and might then institute a suit on the title he had purchased; and if it was the best, recover from his former landlord. The verdict and judgment were for Mrs Matthewson.

The case was removed by writ of error to the supreme court of Pennsylvania. On the argument of this cause before the supreme court, it was decided,-'That the relation between landlord and tenant could not exist between persons holding under a Connecticut title.' And that court, in 1825, reversed the judgment of the common pleas and awarded a venire facias de novo.

Immediately after this decision, on the 8th of April 1826, the legislature of Pennsylvania passed an act, by which it was enacted, 'That the relation of landlord and tenant should exist, and be held as fully and effectually between Connecticut settlers and Pennsylvania claimants, as between other citizens of the commonwealth.'

The ejectment depending in the court of common pleas, of Bradford county, between the plaintiff in error and the defendant, again came on for trial after the law of April 8, 1826, on the 10th of May 1826; and the judge gave in charge to the jury as follows, after stating the above recited act of assembly, to wit: 'It is a general principle of law, founded on wise policy, that the tenant shall not controvert the title of his landlord, and prevent the recovery of his possession, by showing that the title of the landlord is defective. Among the exceptions to this general rule, the supreme court of Pennsylvania have decided, that when the landlord claimed (as the plaintiff claimed on the former trial of this cause) under a Connecticut title, the case should form one of the excepted cases. The legislature have thought proper to enact the above recited law, and by it we are bound. And if the plaintiff in all other respects should be found entitled to a recovery, the mere claiming through a Connecticut title would not now deprive her of her right to a recovery.'

A verdict and judgment were obtained in favour of the defendant in error, Elizabeth Matthewson.

To the charge of the judge, which is inserted at large and sent up with the record, the defendant excepted, and the judge signed and sealed a bill of exceptions.

A writ of error was taken by the defendant to the supreme court of Pennsylvania, and the following were among the errors assigned, to wit:

The court erred in charging,

1. That by the laws of Pennsylvania, the plaintiff's testator could lease the land, and that the rights of landlord do extend to him; he having claimed under a Connecticut title.

2. That the act of the 8th of April 1826 gives a right of recovery, and does away the force of the law, as declared by the supreme court in this case.

On the first of July 1827, the supreme court, after argument, affirmed the judgment of the court of common pleas. And on the 6th of July 1827, a petition and prayer for reversal was filed by John F. Satterlee, the plaintiff in error, who survived Elisha Satterlee; on the ground that the said court had decided the said act of assembly to be constitutional and valid, though he had insisted that he ought not to be affected and barred of recovery by the said act, for that the said act was not valid, and was repugnant to the constitution of the United States.

The cause was argued by Mr. Eli K. Price, and Mr. Sergeant for the plaintiff; and by Mr Sutherland, and Mr Peters for the defendant.

Mr Price, for the plaintiff, contended:

There was enough apparent on the record to sustain the appellate jurisdiction of his Court.

If in fact the act drawn in question is unconstitutional, there is sufficient on the record to give jurisdiction, because it appears that the judge who tried the cause instructed the jury that the act was binding on them as the law; in accordance with the judge's instruction was the verdict of the jury, on which judgment was rendered, and that judgment was affirmed in the supreme court of Pennsylvania, to which this writ of error was taken.

This is therefore a case to which the clause of the constitution of the United States is applicable, and which was disregarded; which is all that need appear to sustain the appellate jurisdiction of this Court. Martin vs. Hunter, 1 Wheaton, 304; Inglee vs. Coolidge, 2 Wheaton, 363; Lanusse vs. Barker, 3 Wheaton, 147; Miller vs. Nicholls, 4 Wheaton, 311; Williams vs. Norris, 12 Wheaton, 124; Hickie vs. Starkie, 1 Peters, 94.

Is the act unconstitutional so far as it affects rights existing at the time of its enactment?

Of the prospective operation of the act we have nothing to say, our complaint being of the divestiture of vested rights. These were the rights of Satterlee to the possession of his estate, derived from the commonwealth, and to take the rents and profits, without, liability to pay the latter or surrender the former to any landlord who as such held a Connecticut title. This was the settled law of the land by the decision in this very case, when first before the supreme court of Pennsylvania. 13 Serg. & R. 133. This decision was evidence of what the law of Pennsylvania had always been. At no time, therefore, did the relation of landlord and tenant exist between these parties. The claimant under the Connecticut title had no rights, and therefore was not entitled to the aid of the liberal principle, that a tenant shall not dispute the possession with his landlord, though he may hold the better title. The decree of Trenton in 1782 had settled the right to the disputed soil in the northern border of Pennsylvania, in favour of that state. The policy thereafter pursued by that state was utterly to exterminate the Connecticut claims within her borders, at the same time that she made great sacrifices to furnish the Connecticut settlers with Pennsylvania titles, by expending her treasures to purchase releases from the holders of them. Among the penal acts to destroy the Connecticut claims were the acts of 1795 and 1802; making it highly penal and criminal to intrude under or convey a Connecticut title. 3 Smith, 209, 525. A more extended history of this unhappy and often bloody controversy may be found in 2 Dall. 304; 6 Binn. 467; 6 Binn. 57; 4 Serg. & R. 281, and 1 Binn. 110.

In the last case it was decided, that a vendor of a Connecticut title could not recover from the vendee the purchase money, because the contract being in violation of the law, the plaintiff had no rights in a court of justice. On the same salutary principle was this case first decided. But with the justice and sound legal principle of this decision, which are most apparent, we have nothing to do. It is enough, that by it the law was settled and a rule of property established. That it did establish a rule of property is most evident; but it has also been expressly by the supreme court of Pennsylvania. 1 Serg. & R. 521. Under this rule of property was Satterlee protected in the possession and enjoyment of his estate. By this act, if this judgment is affirmed, will he be dispossessed of his property, made liable to pay the rents and profits to another, and by the conversion of his possession into the possession of the landlord, for ever precluded from regaining his estate.

Does not this act then impair the obligation of a contract? The contract is the grant of a title from the state to Satterlee. Such a grant is a contract within the meaning of the constitution of the United States. Fletcher vs. Peck, 6 Cranch, 87; Dartmouth College case, 4 Wheaton, 518. 656. 682; Green vs. Biddle, 8 Wheaton, 1. The obligation of a contract is 'the law which binds the parties to perform their undertaking.' 4 Wheaton, 197. The undertaking of the state of Pennsylvania by her grant, to which the law bound her, was that Satterlee should have and hold the premises granted, to take and enjoy the rents and profits thereof, without liability to surrender the possession or pay the profits to any Connecticut claimant, through the relation of landlord and tenant.

By the loss of the possession, Satterlee has been unconstitutionally divested of rights, though the right of possession might remain in him. The possession gives the enjoyment of the rents and profits, which are equivalent to the land itself, and by those terms a title to the land will pass. Possession is itself a title against every body who does not exhibit a better title. It gives a home, which may be invaluable to the owner from the attachments created by long residence, or from its being the place of nativity, or the patrimony derived from a line of reversed ancestors. He who is in possession, may forcibly defend that possession, nay, slay the invader of his habitation, without a breach of the peace or the commission of a crime; while he who is out of possession cannot forcibly take possession, and if he does, though he may have the right, will be dispossessed by the statutes against forcible entry and detainer.

With the title of the commonwealth in his pocket, Satterlee has by this act been denied the right of defending his possession by it. He has been obliged to confess his possession to be the possession of an alien claimant, whose it never was, and never could have been by any judicial decision that was not suicidal to the state sovereignty. He has been bound in fealty to a landlord to whom, if according to the ancient custom he had taken the oath of homage, it would have been an abjuration of his allegiance to the state; for that landlord claims, in breach of his allegiance, the title of a foreign state. Yet by this act the strong arm of the state is to be exerted to dispossess her grantee, and to deliver it over to the favoured alien claimant who had asserted a title in criminal violation of her laws. And to consummate the injustice as far as the most absolute power could do it, her courts of justice are forever to be closed against a claim on her violated and useless patent. If an individual thus attempted to re-assume the rights he had granted, he would be met by the doctrine of estoppel. For states who have the power to execute their arbitrary will, there is no estoppel but that which is to be found in the paramount law of the constitution, firmly enforced by an independent judiciary. If this act had given Satterlee's estate to a claimant on a title perfectly void, it could not have committed a more flagrant violation of justice and of the constitution; for this title was not only void, but could not have been otherwise than criminally asserted.


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).