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United States Supreme Court

73 U.S. 723

Williamson  v.  Suydam

ERROR in ejectment to the Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York.

The case was thus:

Mary Clarke, who died in 1802, devised certain land, now town lots in New York City, to the Right Rev. Benjamin Moore, his wife (the daughter of Mrs. Clarke), and a third person, Mrs. Maunsell, in trust, to receive the rents, to pay the same to her grandson, Thomas B. Clarke (a man, apparently, of improvident habits) during life, and upon his death to convey it to his issue, then living, in fee; and leaving none, then to Clement C. Moore, in fee.

In May, 1811, Bishop Moore had become enfeebled in health. His son, on his father's behalf, in that month, addressed a communication to the Diocesan Convention of the State of New York, requesting it to appoint an assistant bishop for that diocese; wherein he stated 'that though the disease with which it had pleased Almighty God to visit him, was somewhat mitigated, yet, that it was impossible, he was assured, that he should ever be able to render or perform the duties of the episcopal functions.' Thereupon the convention appointed an assistant. In July following, the bishop was struck by paralysis, and grew weaker until he died, in February, 1816.

In 1814, the legislature of New York, on the application or Mr. Clarke,-who had at this time two children, a third afterwards born not having as yet come into being,-passed an act, in which reciting that the trustees had agreed by writing to all such acts as the legislature should deem proper to make for the benefit and relief of T. B. Clarke, and did desire that some other persons might be appointed trustees-it was provided, that the Court of Chancery, on his application, might 'appoint one or more trustees to execute and perform the several trusts and duties' specified in the will, in place of the testamentary trustees, who are hereby discharged from the trusts in the said will mentioned: and, further, that the new trustees should, 'as soon as conveniently may be, partition and divide' the land 'into two equal parts, one moiety whereof shall be held by them to the uses and upon the trusts declared in and by the said will, and the remaining moiety shall be subdivided by the said trustees into so many lots as they may think most likely to effect an advantageous sale thereof; and after having completed such subdivision, the said trustees are hereby authorized and required, within a convenient time thereafter, nor to exceed six months, except at the request of the said Clarke, to sell and dispose of the said last subdivided moiety,' the proceeds to be invested, the interest, excepting a certain portion, to be paid to Mr. Clarke, and the principal reservedf or the trusts of the will.

In 1815, on the application of Mr. Clarke, a supplemental act was passed authorizing HIM 'to execute and perform every act in relation to the real estate, with like effect that trustees duly appointed under the said act might have done, and that HE apply the whole of the interest and income of the said property to the maintenance and support of his family and the education of his children;' and further providing that 'no sale of any part of the said estate shall be made by the said Clarke until he shall have procured the assent of the chancellor to such sale, who shall, at the time of giving such assent, also direct the mode in which the proceeds of such sale shall be vested in the said Clarke as trustee; and, further, that it shall be the duty of the said Clarke annually to render an account to the chancellor, or to such person as he may appoint, of the principal of the proceeds of such sale only, the interest to be applied by the said Clarke in such manner as he may think proper for his use and benefit, and for the maintenance and education of his children.'

In July, 1815, an order was made by the chancellor, on the petition of Mr. Clarke, authorizing him to sell and dispose of the eastern moiety of the estate, 'to be divided by the line in the manner for that purpose mentioned in the said petition,' the sales to be made under the direction of a master, and the proceeds to be paid to the master, and applied and invested according to the directions of the order.

In 1816, a third act was passed, authorizing Clarke, 'under the order heretofore granted by the chancellor, or under any subsequent order, either to mortgage or to sell the premises which the chancellor has permitted, or hereafter may permit him to sell, and to apply the money so raised, by mortgage or sale, to the purposes required by the chancellor, under the acts' theretofore passed.

In March, 1817, the chancellor, upon the petition of Mr. Clarke, made an order that Mr. Clarke be authorized to sell the southern moiety of the said estate, . . . instead of the eastern moiety, as permitted and directed by the orders theretofore made, and further authorizing him to mortgage all or any part or parts of the said southern moiety of the said estate, if in his judgment it would be more beneficial to mortgage than to sell the same; and to convey and parts of the southern moiety, in satisfaction of any debts due from him, upon a valuation to be agreed on between him and his respective creditors: provided, that every sale and mortgage and conveyance in satisfaction, that might be made by the said Clarke, should be approved by one of the masters of the court, &c.

In October, 1818, Clarke executed a deed of twenty lots to one McIntyre. The consideration recited in the deed is the indebtedness of the grantor to the grantee 'in a large sum of money,' and $3750 paid.

In this state of things, Clarke having died in 1826, leaving children, Mrs. Williamson and others, these all now brought suit against Suydam to recover two lots in the western moiety of the estate, as first divided, held by him under title from McIntire. The court below held the title of the defendant good The correctness of such view was now the matter here.

To understand the case better, it is necessary to state that these statutes and what was done under them had been the subject, previous to the present case, of consideration in the State courts of New York, as, also, in this court. The present case itself had been here twice before.

Questions under the statutes first arose in the courts of New York, in Sinclair v. Jackson, [1] in which case the court declined to express an opinion, respecting 'the constitutionality of the laws, or the efficacy of the proceedings under them.' The next case was Cochran v. Van Surlay, [2] where the Court of Errors, by a much divided court, held, that the statutes were constitutional, and that the proceedings shown in that case had been take in conformity to the statutes.

After this decision was made, proceedings under these statutes came before the courts of the United States, and on certificate of division were decided by this court in Williamson v. Berry, 3 Williamson v. Ball. [5]

This court then decided various questions, which arose respecting the conformity of the proceedings to the requisitions of the statutes. But the decision in Clarke v. Van Surley, having been so far from unanimous, the majority of this court thought that the questions might be examined anew, and their view was different from that of the majority in the State court. The present case, which, as already mentioned, had been here twice before, was first decided by the Circuit Court, and in conformity to the decisions of this court just mentioned. Coming here again [6] the judgment was reversed, on the ground that subsequently to the cases already referred to in this court, the courts of New York had, in Towle v. Forney, [7] and Clarke v. Davenport, [8] reiterated the decision in Cochran v. Van Surley, and thus by repeated decision had established in a way which, by its unanimity, had fixed what was decided a law of property, which the Federal courts must now enforce, whatever might be their own opinion or decision.

Mr. David Dudley Field, for the plaintiff in error:

Since this court has thus determined, that it will look only to the State courts for the exposition of statutes and documents affecting the title to land, even though it may have previously adjudged that such exposition was erroneous, and however contrary to reason that exposition may be, the plaintiffs must abstain from debating any of the questions so resolved. But two questions remain that have never been passed on by any court, and these we now make:

I. The power to partition the estate into two equal parts was exhausted by the partition into an eastern and western portion.

II. The discharge of the trustees by the legislature of New York was in contravention of that clause of the Constitution of the United States, which declares that no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts.

These two points Mr. Field argued at length.

No opposing counsel appeared in this case. In one quite like it-Williamson v. Moore-the defendant was represented by Mr. H. E. Davies, who contended—

1. That it was a matter of necessity, in the condition of his health, that Bishop Moore should be discharged, and also that the two female trustees named should be discharged, and that provision by law should be made for the appointment of competent and proper trustees.

2. That both the questions now raised had been in fact decided in the State courts and in the last decision in this court.

Mr. Justice CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  8 Cowen, 579.

^2  20 Wendell, 365; S.C.., 15 Id. 439.

^5  8 Howard, 566.

^6  24 Howard, 433.

^7  14 New York, 426; S.C.., 4 Duer, 164.

^8  1 Boswell, 96.

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).