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United States Supreme Court

38 U.S. 209

Stein  v.  Bowman


IN error to the District Court of the United States for the eastern district of Louisiana.

In the District Court of the eastern district of Louisiana, on the eighth day of April, 1836, Johann Frederick Stein, an alien and a subject of the King of Hanover, presented a petition, stating that he was the sole and lawful heir of Nicholas Stein, or sometimes called Nicholas Stone, who had died some time before, in the parish of St. Tammany, in the state of Louisiana. The petition prayed that William Bowman, who had been appointed curator of the estate of the deceased Stein, by the proper tribunal, should be decreed to account for the estate and effects received by him, and to deliver to the petitioner the property of the succession which had not been sold, and to pay to him the amount in his hands.

The answer of William Bowman, the curator, denied that the petitioner, Johann Frederick Stein, was the heir or related to the deceased Nicholas Stein, or Stone; and averred that the claim was interposed to vex and harass the respondent, and the true heirs of Nicholas Stein.

Afterwards, Andreas Stein, residing in the kingdom of Hanover, presented a petition to the District Court, stating that in April, 1834, he had applied to the Court of Probate, of New Orleans, claiming the succession to Nicholas Stein, as the heir of the deceased, and that by the unjust interference of Johann Frederick Stein, he had been prevented recovering the same.

Subsequently, Johann Stein, Anna Sophia Stein, wife of Mathias Ahreus, and Luer Stein, a minor, assisted by his curator or trustee, and by his guardian, all of the kingdom of Hanover, filed their petition in the Circuit Court, stating that they are the only heirs of Nicholas Stein, and that in 1835 they had instituted a suit against William Bowman, which suit is still pending. They aver that the claim of Johann Frederick Stein is fraudulent, and that he is not the heir of Nicholas Stein, as he alleges. They pray leave to introduce in the suit, and state that William Bowman is a mere stakeholder. William Bowman afterwards filed a petition in the District Court, setting forth that individuals belonging to three different families, the petitioners, pretend to be the nearest relations of the late Nicholas Stein, and to be entitled to his estate; and he asks, as he is only a stakeholder, that the parties contesting the claims of each other may be called in to take cognizance of this suit, and defend him against it.

The petitioner, Johann Frederick Stein, put in a general replication to each of the petitions of intervention.

The case was, on the application of William Bowman, referred to a jury, and on the 3d of March, 1837, it came on for trial; and the jury found a verdict for the defendant.

On the trial of the cause, bills of exceptions were signed by the Court to the decisions of the Court, on points arising during the trial of the cause.

The affidavit of John Rist was laid before the Court, stating that he had made diligent inquiry for Francis Stuffle, whose deposition was taken in the cause in the parish Court, between the plaintiff and Bowman; 'that he was unable to find him, and had been informed, and truly believed he was dead; this information had been derived from those who knew him.'

The deposition also stated, that Nicholas Mouzat, whose testimony was taken in the same cause, left Louisiana before the commencement of this suit, and ascended the Mississippi with the intention of going to the state of Ohio; that he had not since heard from him, although he had made inquiries for him.

The deposition of Francis Stuffle was then offered in evidence by the plaintiff, and was admitted by the Court; to which the defendant excepted.

The defendant called the wife of Francis Stuffle, he being dead, to prove that her husband had been bribed by John Rist to give evidence in the case; and also to prove he had frequently told her he knew nothing of the plaintiff, or of Nicholas Stein. The plaintiff objected to the admission of the witness; but the Court allowed her to be sworn, and she gave her testimony. The plaintiff excepted.

The plaintiff then offered in evidence certain German documents, to prove the pedigree of the petitioner, which were rejected by the Court, as not being sufficiently authenticated; and to this rejection the plaintiff excepted.

The depositions which were taken, and which were in the German language, were not signed by the deponents; and at the end of each deposition, it is stated that each of the witnesses assented to the same. A magistrate of the place certifies to this fact, and this is attested under his seal by the 'Royal British Hanoverian Landrostey;' and his signature is attested under his seal, by the 'Royal British Hanoverian Minister Residentis.'

The defendant, William Bowman, was, during the trial, admitted as a witness by the Court, to testify as to the merits of the controversy. The plaintiff excepted to his admission.

The Court refused to admit Stultz as a witness for the plaintiff, to prove that he had been in Hanover the preceding summer, and there heard from many old persons of whom he inquired, that the plaintiff was the brother of Nicholas Stein. The witness stated that he had gone to Germany for the purpose of taking a deposition: the Court were of opinion, that the depositions of those persons should have been taken.

The plaintiff prosecuted this writ of error.

The case was submitted to the Court, in printed arguments, by Mr. Crittenden, for the plaintiff in error; and by Mr. Garland for the defendant.

Mr. Crittenden, for the plaintiff in error, stated that:

The plaintiff, J. F. Stein, insists that the Court erred in all the opinions and decisions excepted on his part, and has prosecuted a writ of error, to reverse the judgment rendered against him.

A decision by this Court, on all the questions presented by these bills of exceptions, will probably be necessary to the proper final disposition of the case in the Court below, and, therefore, they are all insisted upon, and submitted to this Court. If the single object was merely a reversal of the judgment, it is supposed that errors obvious and sufficient for the purpose are made manifest by the bills of exceptions.

From the first exception it appears that the Court permitted Bowman, the defendant, to become a witness in his own case; and, in the second, that a woman was permitted to violate the sacred confidence and intimacy of married life, by giving testimony to betray and criminate her deceased husband. The law condemns it. Starkie on Evidence, vol. ii. part 4, page 705, &c., and 709, &c.

Mr. Garland, for the defendant in error.

Nicholas Stein, generally called and known as Nicholas Stone, died in the parish of St. Tammany, Louisiana, in the year 1833, leaving an estate estimated to be worth about twenty-five thousand dollars. In October 1833, Bowman, one of the present defendants, was appointed by the proper tribunal, curator of the estate, and took upon himself the administration.

The plaintiff alleges that Nicholas Stein died without leaving either legal ascendants, descendants, or collaterals, except himself; and that he is the only brother and sole heir. That the term allowed by law to Bowman to administer the estate has expired, and he is entitled to the whole of it. He therefore asks for an account and payment of the amount that has been received.

Bowman denies positively that the plaintiff is the brother or any relation of Nicholas Stein, deceased; and says that his claim to the estate is unfounded and fraudulent, and intended to defraud, vex, and harass him and the real heirs.

Andrew Stein intervenes in the suit, and alleges he is the nearest of kin, and sole heir of Nicholas Stein, and claims the estate; and that he has instituted a suit in one of the state tribunals, to wit, the Probate Court of the parish of St. Tammany, to recover it; which suit was then, and is now pending.

Johann Stein, Anna Sophia Stein, wife of Mathias Ahreus, and Luer Stein, a minor, also intervene in the suit; and say they are the only heirs of Nicholas Stein, and claim the estate.

In answer to all these petitions, Bowman, the defendant, answers, that he is merely a stakeholder; that he has three suits pending against him to recover the same property, to wit, the case now on trial, and two suits in St. Tammany.

The plaintiff and appellant answers the two petitions of intervention, and take issue with the parties named in them, as to their claims to be recognised as heirs.

Nicholas Stein, it appears from the testimony, came to the United States about thirty years previous to his death, from the kingdom of Hanover. After his arrival, he never heard from any of his relations, or did he ever have any intercourse with them, except writing one letter, which is in the possession of one of the interpleaders, addressed to him as a brother.

The record shows that a man named Rist (who is a gambler in Louisiana) is the person who is prosecuting this claim in the name of the plaintiff and appellant. We allege it is fraudulent, and is attempted to be sustained by perjury; and that Rist is the party really interested.

It also very satisfactorily appears that a suit was instituted in 1834, by the appellant, or rather by Rist, in his name, in the Probate Court of the parish of St. Tammany, against the appellees, to recover this same property. This was in the parish where Nicholas Stein had resided many years previous to his death, and where all the circumstances relating to his affairs were known. That suit was decided against the plaintiff on the merits. He took an appeal to the Supreme Court of the state, where every point taken in the inferior Court, and decided upon in the course of the trial, was affirmed; but that tribunal set aside the final judgment on the merits, without giving any reason for so doing, and entered up a judgment of nonsuit. The cause was tried by a jury, and after an investigation of three days a general verdict was rendered in favour of the defendant, on the 4th of March, 1837.

On the 11th of March, 1837, the plaintiff, in an informal manner, moved the Court for a new trial, on various grounds; which motion was rejected, because not asked for within the delay prescribed by law and the rules of the Court. It will not be denied, that so far as all questions of practice are involved, that the laws of the state of Louisiana, and the decisions of its Courts, are to govern in the Courts of the United States. 7 Laws United States, p. 315.

In this case a new trial cannot be awarded, and the cause remanded, even if the Court should be of opinion there was error in the decision of any of the points made in the District Court; because the appellant has abandoned or lost the right he may have had to have his case revised or examined in that way. A new trial being one of the modes prescribed by law of having a judgment revised or re-examined, if the party does not avail himself of it in the manner and within the time directed, he can no more have that benefit than he could that of an appeal, if he had not taken it within the time and in the manner directed by law. Louisiana Code of Practice, articles 556, 557. 4 Martin's Reports, N. S. 532.

The manner of applying for a new trial, and the time within which the application must be made, is specially and particularly described; and the appellant has not complied with the law in a single particular. Louisiana Code of Practice, articles 558, 559, 560, 561.

Taking it for granted that the Court will not remand the cause, it must be examined on its merits; and it is submitted whether there are sufficient grounds to set aside the verdict of the jury, and reverse the judgment. The law of the case is very plain, if the plaintiff has sustained his allegations by proof. Is the sole relative in the ascending, descending, or collateral line to Nicholas Stein, deceased? If he is, there is an end of the question. Is there enough on the record to satisfy the Court that he is, even admitting all the evidence rejected in the Court below? It is not sufficient the plaintiff should show he is a brother; but before he can claim the whole estate he must show the father and mother of Nicholas Stein are dead. If both or either of them are alive, the brother cannot inherit the whole estate; because in Louisiana ascendants inherit as well as brothers and sisters. Ascendants are what are called forced heirs, and like descendants, cannot be disinherited, even by testament, but for cause. Fathers or mothers do not entirely exclude brothers or sisters, or their descendants; but, before these last can inherit solely, they must show no forced heirs are living. Louisiana Code, articles 883. 899. 907, 908. 1481, 1482. 12 Martin's Reports, 390.

As to the plaintiff's first bill of exception, it is not necessary to say any thing. It is taken to the admission of Bowman's affidavit, offered for the purpose of affecting the jurisdiction of the Court; and as the Court afterwards decide that the exception to the jurisdiction was made too late, there is no necessity for it, unless the Court shall consider it in connexion with the defendant's third bill of exception.

The second bill of the plaintiff is taken to the rejection of certain documents in the German language. These are the same papers that were offered in evidence in the first suit of the Probate Court, rejected by it, and that decision affirmed by the Supreme Court of the state of Louisiana. It is sufficient to refer to that decision. Louisiana Reports, vol. ___, page ___, and the decisions therein referred to.

The plaintiff's third bill is to the admission of Bowman as a witness. The bill does not specify any particular objection, which it certainly ought to do, and the Court is left to conjecture the ground of exception. No objection to the defects in the bill are intended to be waived; on the contrary, we insist on all the legal exceptions to it. It is supposed the objection to Bowman is that he is a party on the record. But the Court will recollect he has no personal interest in the case. He is a mere stakeholder, ready to deliver any property or money he has in possession to whoever is legally entitled to receive it. The plaintiff has never been recognised as an heir. If he had been, and then Bowman refused to pay over, the case would be different.

As to the recognition of heirs and their rights, before and after, the Court is respectfully referred to Louisiana Code, articles --; Louisiana Code of Practice, articles Nos. 1000-1004, and the amendment at page 348.

Bowman is not individually liable for costs, until the plaintiff shall be recognised as heir, and he has put him in delay; until then he is the representative of all persons interested, and the costs are paid out of the estate. As a stakeholder, Bowman is a competent witness.

The plaintiff's fourth bill is to the rejection of Stultz as a witness. The Court was certainly correct in rejecting his testimony. The cases in which hearsay testimony is admitted are all specified. They are exceptions to a general rule, and the counsel for the appellant must show that this is one of the exceptions. It will be difficult, it is believed, to convince the Court that the authority referred to will authorize the reception of the evidence of this witness. The persons whose declarations are to be stated are alive. It is, besides, shown to the Court that the plaintiff or appellant has alleged that he had documentary evidence of his being the heir, and that he offered it in evidence, but it was rejected, because not presented in a legal shape. Ancient boundaries and pedigree may sometimes be proved by tradition, and the common understanding of old persons; but affinity and the relationship of collateral heirs do not come within the rule.

The plaintiff's fifth bill is to the admission of Mrs. Stupfel, or Stuffle, to testify as a witness. There is no known law, that prohibits man and wife from giving testimony in a cause between third persons, or prohibits the wife from contradicting the husband, or proving any other facts she may know. She cannot testify for or against him in a suit in which he is a party, or interested.

The plaintiff's sixth bill of exception is to the rejection of a deposition of a witness named Mounzat, which had been taken under a commission issued in the suit, in the probate Court, and which the plaintiff wished to read as evidence in this suit, on the pretext that Mouzat was absent, and could not be bound. The judge was not satisfied of his absence; it was not pretended he was dead. It does not appear any effort was made to procure his attendance, or have his deposition taken.

The plaintiff's seventh bill of exception, is to the refusal of the Court to award a new trial, or to permit a motion for it, and the grounds to be filed. The district judge was certainly correct in his opinion. By the rules of the Court, the time had expired, and the motion was not made in the manner or the time prescribed by law. Louisiana Code of Practice, articles Nos. 557-561.

If in conformity with this opinion, that the Court cannot send the cause back for a new trial, and it shall proceed to investigate the merits, it will not perhaps be necessary to decide on any of the defendants' bills of exceptions. But if the Court should determine to send the cause back, contrary to expectation, or should it be considered necessary in the investigation, it is not intended to waive any legal ground taken in them.

The first exception of the defendants is to the reception by the district judge of a document called a deposition de bene esse, of a person called Henry Munget. It is not taken by the authority of any Court, nor is any notice given to the defendants of its being taken. As to the first ground taken in the bill, see Louisiana Code of Practice, articles 424-431, &c.; also, amendment, page 156. As to the second and third grounds, it is not necessary to produce authorities. The fourth is settled by the decision given in the Supreme Court of Louisiana, in this case, already referred to.

The defendant's second exception is to the admission of the deposition of Francis Stupfel, or Stuffle. As to first and third grounds, it is sufficient to refer again to the case between these parties in the Supreme Court of Louisiana. As to the second a reference is made to Code of Practice, articles 433-435, &c.

The verdict of the jury has negatived every allegation of the plaintiff that he is a brother or heir of Nicholas Stein, deceased; and it is presumed the Court will not disturb it.

Mr. Garland also submitted an additional printed argument.

He stated, that as to the plaintiff's third bill of exception, he would refer the Court to Martin's Rep. N. S. vol. iv. p. 21; and also to page 72 of the same volume, and 10 Martin, 637, as applicable to the point under consideration, and to several others in the case. The Court are asked to attend particularly to what Bowman states in his affidavit: it is, that Rist is the real party, having purchased all the rights of Stein, the plaintiff, and he could prove it by witnesses who are named in the affidavit, who were afterwards introduced, and actually did prove it. The facts stated by Bowman having been proved by other legal testimony, the bill ought not to be noted. 5 Martin's Rep. 213.

Bowman is competent to testify as to the identity or relationship of Stein, the plaintiff, in a case where several are claiming the property in his possession. It is a matter of no concern to him who is recognised as the heir. He has to pay to whoever shall recover. The costs are paid out of the estate. His commissions, as curator, are neither increased nor diminished, nor has he any interest in the event of the suit which will disqualify him. The case would be different were a stranger claiming something of the curator as a debt, or if he were claiming a debt, or the benefit of a contract. The effect of his evidence then, would be to increase or diminish the amount of the succession, and, consequently, the compensation of the curator. Bowman is the legal agent of all the heirs, or those claiming as such, until some one is recognised as heir according to law. To test the competency of Bowman, the Court have only to examine whether he will directly gain or lose any thing by the event of this suit. 2 Martin's Rep. N. S. 333; 4 N. S. 539; 3 N. S. 11; also, 166.

The question raised by the plaintiff's fifth bill of exception is, whether the widow of Francis Stuffle can testify to what her deceased husband told her previous to his death; which statement would go to discredit his evidence. She is certainly a competent witness to testify in the case, and the plaintiff must show such questions as are propounded ought not to be answered. Has he done so? By answering the question, would she criminate her husband, subject him to any penalty or action of any kind? Clearly not, for he is beyond the reach of any legal proceedings. No breach of confidence is involved, nor do the relations exist; in which it is the object of the law to preserve harmony, by preventing the husband or wife from testifying as to what one tells the other. The authority cited by the counsel does not go the length that is contended. It is hoped the Court will examine it particularly, and reference is made to the second English edition of Starkie on Evidence, vol. ii. 401, 402, and the authorities there cited.

In the case of the King vs. the inhabitants of All Saints, Worcester, the Court evidently intended to narrow very much, if not entirely contradict the positions previously taken, which Starkie says were certainly too extensive and indefinite. The only effect of the evidence of Mrs. Stuffle would be to cast a reflection upon the memory of her deceased husband. During his lifetime she might have been called to prove what might have disgraced him, and he might have been compelled to answer himself a question that would have had the same effect. 1 Starkie, second English edition, pages 167 to 172, inclusive.

The Court were also referred to the opinion of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, in a suit between the same parties, decided on the 21st of March, 1836.

Mr. Justice M'LEAN delivered the opinion of the Court.--


NotesEdit

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).