Page images
PDF
EPUB

IO.

is not a contract within Article I, Section 1o, of the Constitution. It is clear, therefore, that judgments, simply as judgments, cannot claim the protection of this constitutional provision.

But even judgments founded upon a contract express or implied have no special sanctity by way of estoppel under Article I, Section

The question whether a contract has come into being, or whether, if valid, its scope is greater or less, raises no question as to impairment of the obligation of contract by the law of a state. 26 Clearly, therefore, a ruling upon the validity or invalidity of a judgment, or upon the nature and scope of the issues concluded thereby under the principle of res judicata, cannot raise any question with respect to impairing the obligation of contract. It follows that a failure of a state court to give sufficient effect as an estoppel to one of its own judgments,27 or to a judgment of a court of a foreign nation, does not raise a federal question.

But suppose that a state court gives too great effect, by way of estoppel, to one of its own judgments or to a judgment of a court of a foreign country. Is the party aggrieved thereby deprived of due process of law or of the equal protection of the laws within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment? It is manifest that a judgment may fail as an estoppel for want of jurisdiction over the party sought to be bound,28 or because it does not foreclose the issue in question.29 In the one case the question is whether any estoppel exists as against this defendant; in the other, as to whether a given estoppel as against this defendant covers the case at bar. This distinction, as

we shall see, is important. A personal judgment rendered without personal jurisdiction is a nullity.30 To give any effect thereto is a denial of due process of law.30 And this is true even where the judgment is rendered in the same state where it is drawn in question.31 If, then, a state court give effect to a judgment rendered in the same state, which judgment is a nullity for want of jurisdiction, the party aggrieved may take the case to the Supreme Court of the United States upon writ of error.

26 Railway Co. v. Rock, 4 Wall. (U. S.) 177 (1866).
27 Phoenix Ins. Co. v. Tennessee, 161 U. S. 174, 16 Sup. Ct. 471 (1896).

28 Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U. S. 714 (1877); Hall v. Lanning, 91 U. S. 160 (1875); Brown v. Fletcher's Estate, 210 U. S. 82, 28 Sup. Ct. 702 (1908).

29 Hughes v. United States, 4 Wall. (U. S.) 232 (1866). 30 Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U. S. 714 (1877); Scott v. McNeal, 154 U. S. 34, 14 Sup. Ct. 1108 (1893).

31 Scott v. McNeal, 154 U. S. 34, 14 Sup. Ct. 1108 (1893).

31

This was squarely decided in Scott v. McNeal.32 In that case Scott brought against McNeal an action of ejectment in the Superior Court of Thurston County, Washington. Scott proved title in himself in 1888. McNeal then offered in evidence a judgment of the Probate Court of Thurston County, which adjudged Scott to be dead and granted administration upon his estate. Under this decree an administrator was appointed who, pursuant to an order of court, sold the lands in question to one Ward, under whom the defendant claimed. The Superior Court held the probate proceedings to be valid, and the Supreme Court of Washington affirmed the judgment, whereupon the case was brought to the Supreme Court of the United States upon a writ of error. That court held that a probate proceeding upon a living person was void for want of jurisdiction; that to give effect to such a proceeding even in the same state was a denial of due process of law; and that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction upon a writ of error to the state court to review and reverse such a judgment.

We now pass to the other branch of this question. Assuming that a judgment of a court of the same state or of a foreign country binds the parties, and that the only question is as to the extent of the estoppel thereby created, is it a denial of due process if the court erroneously give too wide effect to such estoppel? Here again there is a singular dearth of authorities.

In Gilles v. Stinchfield,33 Stinchfield brought action in the Superior Court of Tuolumne County, California, to recover the value of certain gold alleged to have been taken from the plaintiffs' mining claim by the defendants. One branch of the case involved a question under certain sections of the Revised Statutes of the United States, but the California court decided against the defendant upon the ground of an alleged estoppel by deed. In dismissing the writ of error the United States Supreme Court said, through Chief Justice Fuller:

“But the decision of the Supreme Court [of California) was clearly based upon the estoppel deemed by that court to operate against plaintiffs in error upon general principles of law and the Statute of California in respect of such a conveyance as that to Stinchfield, irrespective of any Federal question. And this was an independent ground broad

[blocks in formation]

enough to maintain the judgment. The writ of error must, therefore, be dismissed.”

In Phænix, etc. Ins. Co. v. Tennessee 34 the plaintiff (Tennessee) brought action to recover certain taxes. The defendant insurance company pleaded in bar a certain judgment rendered in the same state. The trial court held the judgment to be no bar, and this was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Tennessee. The United States Supreme Court in affirming the judgment below said, through Brewer, J.:

“We think the decision of the Supreme Court [of Tennessee) as to the weight to be given the judgment is not reviewable by us because it is not a Federal question. ... If it were otherwise, every decision of a state court, claimed to be erroneous, which involved the failure to give what the defeated party might claim to be the proper weight to one of its own judgments, would present a Federal question, and would be reviewable here."

In Beals v. Cone 35 the plaintiff brought action in the state court of Colorado with respect to a certain mining claim. One contention of the plaintiff was as to the existence of an alleged estoppel in pais against the defendant. The Supreme Court of Colorado ruled against the plaintiff, who sued out this writ of error. In dismissing the writ for want of jurisdiction the United States Supreme Court said, through Brewer, J.:

“The estoppel was not of record but in pais, arising, as contended from contradictory statements made by one of the defendants, at a different time and place. Whether such statements work an estoppel depends not upon the Constitution or any law of Congress, involves no Federal question, but is determined by rules of general law.”

In Schaefer v. Werling 36 the question was as to the validity of a certain paving assessment. One defense claimed by the lot owner (Schaefer) was an estoppel in pais. The trial court ruled against the estoppel, which judgment was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Indiana. In affirming the judgment, Brewer, J., said:

“It may be observed that, so far as the question was one of estoppel, it was purely a state and not a Federal question.”

34 161 U. S. 174, 16 Sup. Ct. 471 (1896). 35 188 U. S. 184, 23 Sup. Ct. 275 (1902). 36 188 U. S. 516, 23 Sup. Ct. 449 (1902).

It must be noted, however, that none of these cases decide our precise question as to the effect of giving too wide scope to a judgment of a court of a foreign country or of the same state. In Phænix, etc. Ins. Co. v. Tennessee the alleged error was a failure to give sufficient effect as an estoppel to the judgment in question. The language quoted, it is true, is sufficient to cover our problem. But it goes too far, unless that case is to be distinguished from Scott v. McNeal on the ground that in the McNeal case the judgment was a nullity, while in the Tennessee case the judgment was admittedly valid and the only question was as to its effect as an estoppel. In Beals v. Cone and Schaefer v. Werling, also, the alleged error was a refusal to find an estoppel in pais. Neither, therefore, decide what is the effect of erroneously finding and giving too great effect to an estoppel by judgment. In Gilles v. Stinchfield, however, the error alleged was that the California court erroneously found an estoppel by deed, and it was held that this presented no federal question. That case, therefore, indicates that to sustain an estoppel by deed, even erroneously, does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment.

If, then, the estoppel created by a valid judgment of a court of the same state or of a foreign country is to be treated like questions of estoppel in pais, or by deed, the question is whether the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to every litigant as an element of due process the right to litigate every relevant issue in his case. Logically it seems somewhat difficult to distinguish between raising an estoppel by a void judgment and erroneously extending the estoppel raised by a valid judgment. In each case the litigant is improperly prevented from litigating an issue which he is legally entitled to litigate. There is, however, a difference in degree if not in kind. And there are a good many authorities which indicate that the Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee the right to litigate every relevant issue. Thus a summary writ of distress may issue against a customs collector to recover the amount found due upon a departmental audit of the collector's accounts, without any preliminary trial.37 Again, the court will accept as conclusive the determination of the executive upon a political question, such as the date when California was conquered,38 or the danger of foreign

37 Murray v. Hoboken Land, etc. Co. 18 How. (U. S.) 272 (1855).

38 United States v. Yorba, 1 Wall. (U. S.) 412 (1863); Hornsby v. United States, 10 Wall. (U. S.) 224 (1869).

invasion,39 or as to which of two rival state governments is the legal government,40 even though the litigant was not party to the decision of the question. In the same way the court will not review the decision of the proper administrative officer that an alleged Chinese 41 or Japanese 42 person is not entitled to enter the United States. And where a discretion has been confided by law to an executive officer, his honest decision on questions of fact is final.4 The effect given to decisions of the federal Land Office upon questions of fact is another example of the same principle.44 In all these cases the decision might be right or might be wrong upon the merits, but it was held that the merits of the question could not be litigated, and that the decision was final. These cases, therefore, show that the right to try every relevant issue upon the merits is not necessarily an element either of due process or of equal protection of the laws. And since the Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee freedom from judicial error to litigants in state courts, 45 it is sufficient if the court decides rightly or wrongly as to the existence and scope of the estoppel created by its own valid judgment or by the valid judgment of a court of a foreign country.

The cases then point to the following conclusions:

1. The Supreme Court of the United States has jurisdiction upon a writ of error to review a ruling by a state court as to the effect of a judgment of a federal court, or of a court of another state, of a territory, or of the District of Columbia, whether the error alleged be that too great or too little faith and credit was given to such judgment.

39 Martin v. Mott, 12 Wheat. (U. S.) 19 (1827).
40 Luther v. Borden, 7 How. (U. S.) 1 (1849).
41 United States v. Ju Toy, 198 U. S. 253, 25 Sup. Ct. 644 (1904).
42 Nishimura Ekiu v. United States, 142 U. S. 651, 12 Sup. Ct. 336 (1892).

43 Hadden v. Merritt, 115 U. S. 25, 5 Sup. Ct. 1169 (1885) (value of the Mexican dollar); Keim v. United States, 177 U. S. 290, 20 Sup. Ct. 574 (1900) (dismissal of subordinate for inefficiency); United States v. Johnston, 124 U. S. 236, 8 Sup. Ct. 446 (1888) (amount and propriety of the expenses of a special agent); United States o. Milwaukee, etc. Ry., 5 Biss. (U. S.) 410, 421 (1873) (as to whether a proposed bridge will obstruct navigation).

44 Vance v. Burbank, 101 U. S. 514 (1879); Johnson v. Drew, 171 U. S. 93, 18 Sup. Ct. 800 (1898); Gertgens v. O'Connor, 191 U. S. 237, 24 Sup. Ct. 94 (1903).

45 Bonner v. Gorman, 213 U. S. 86, 29 Sup. Ct. 483 (1909); Central Land Co. v. Laidley, 159 U. S. 103, 16 Sup. Ct. 80 (1895); Arrowsmith v. Harmoning, 118 U. S. 194, 6 Sup. Ct. 1023 (1886). But on this point see an interesting article by Henry Schofield in 3 Ill. L. Rev. 195.

« PreviousContinue »