169 U.S. 115 (1898), 76, Wetmore v. Rymer

Docket Nº:No. 76
Citation:169 U.S. 115, 18 S.Ct. 293, 42 L.Ed. 682
Party Name:Wetmore v. Rymer
Case Date:January 17, 1898
Court:United States Supreme Court

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169 U.S. 115 (1898)

18 S.Ct. 293, 42 L.Ed. 682




No. 76

United States Supreme Court

January 17, 1898

Submitted November 1, 1897




In an action of ejectment the question whether the land in dispute is of sufficient value to give a circuit court jurisdiction is purely one of fact, and the statutes regulating jurisdiction leave the mode of trying such issues to the discretion of the trial judge.

Whether he elects to submit such issue to a jury, or to himself hear and determine it without the intervention of a jury, in either event the parties are not concluded by the judgment of the circuit court.

In this case, the question was passed upon by the court below on affidavits, and the judgment dismissing the action for want of jurisdiction is reviewable here.

A suit cannot properly be dismissed by a circuit court as not involving a controversy of an amount sufficient to come within its jurisdiction unless the facts, when made to appear on the record, create a legal certainty of that conclusion.

[18 S.Ct. 293] This was an action of ejectment, brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Tennessee to recover a tract of land in Polk County. The declaration alleged that the land was worth more than $2,000. The defendants disclaimed as to a portion of the

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land and pleaded not guilty and the statute of limitations as to the remainder.

At the trial, after the plaintiffs' evidence was closed, the defendants moved the court to dismiss the plaintiffs' suit for want of jurisdiction, because it appeared that the matter in dispute did not exceed, exclusive of interest and costs, the sum or value of $2,000, but the court suspended action on this motion until the verdict of the jury should be rendered. The defendants then proceeded to introduce their evidence on the matters put in issue by the pleadings, and after argument of counsel and the charge of the court, the jury found a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs and assessed their damages for the detention of the premises at one dollar. Thereupon the court rendered judgment on the verdict, and a writ of possession and execution accordingly.

But immediately upon the rendition of the verdict and judgment, the court set them aside, entertained the defendants' motion to dismiss for want of jurisdiction, and gave leave to both parties to file affidavits showing the value of the land in controversy.

Upon consideration of the evidence heard on the trial, and of affidavits produced on behalf of the plaintiffs, the court, being of opinion that the value of the matter in dispute was less than $2,000, and that there was not a substantial controversy between the parties of sufficient value to be within the jurisdiction of the court, dismissed the suit for want of jurisdiction, and rendered judgment for costs against the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs excepted to this action of the court. A bill of exceptions was sealed, and a writ of error was allowed to this Court.

SHIRAS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE SHIRAS, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The first question that arises upon this record is whether

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the action of the circuit court in dismissing the plaintiffs' action for the want of jurisdiction is reviewable by us. The court acted in pursuance of the fifth section of the Act of March 3, 1875, c. 137, 18 Stat. 470, 472, which provided

that, if, in any suit commenced in a circuit court or removed from a state court to a circuit court of the United States, it shall appear to the satisfaction of said circuit court at any time after such suit has been brought or removed thereto, that such suit does not really and substantially involve a dispute or controversy properly within the jurisdiction of said circuit court, or that the parties to said suit have been improperly or collusively made or joined, either as plaintiffs or defendants, for the purpose of creating a case cognizable or removable under this act, the said circuit court shall proceed no further therein, but shall dismiss the suit or remand it to the court from which it was removed, as justice may require, and shall make such order as to costs as shall be just; but the order of said circuit court dismissing or remanding said cause to the state court shall be reviewable by the supreme court on writ of error or appeal as the case may be.

By the sixth section of the Act of August 13, 1888, c. 866, 25 Stat. 433, amending the Act of March 3, 1887, it was enacted

that the last paragraph of section five of the act of Congress approved March third, eighteen hundred and seventy-five, entitled "An act to determine the jurisdiction of circuit courts of the United States and to regulate the removal of causes from state courts, and for other purposes," and section six hundred and forty of the Revised Statutes, and all laws and parts of laws in conflict with the provisions of this act, be and the same are hereby repealed.

Any doubt that may have been caused by this repealing enactment, as to the power to review the judgment of a circuit court dismissing a suit for want of jurisdiction, was removed by the Act of February 25, 1889, 25 Stat. c. 236, p. 693, entitled "An act to provide for writs of error or appeals to the Supreme Court of the United States in all cases involving the question of the jurisdiction of the courts below," and which provided

that in all cases where a final judgment or

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decree shall be rendered in a circuit court of the United States in which there shall have been a question involving the jurisdiction of the court, the party against whom the judgment or decree is rendered shall be entitled to an appeal or writ of error to the Supreme Court of the United States to review such judgment or decree without reference to the amount of the same, but in cases where the decree or judgment does not exceed the sum of five thousand dollars, the supreme court shall not review any question raised upon the record except such question of jurisdiction; such writ of error or appeal shall be taken and allowed under the same provisions as apply to other writs of error or appeals. . . .

This Act of February 25, 1889, was followed by the Act of March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 826, c. 517, which provided, in its fifth section,

that appeals or writs of error may be taken from the district courts or from the existing circuit courts direct to the supreme court in the following cases: in any case in which the jurisdiction of the court is in issue; in such cases the question of jurisdiction alone shall be certified to the supreme court from the court below for decision.

These provisions of the several statutes plainly disclose the intent of Congress that a party whose suit has been dismissed by a circuit court for want of jurisdiction shall have the right to have such judgment reviewed by this Court. And we have accordingly heretofore held that the action of the circuit courts in such cases is subject to our revision. Williams v. Nottawa, 104 U.S. 209; Barry v. Edmunds, 116 U.S. 550; Hartog v. Memory, 116 U.S. 588; Morris v. Gilmer, 129 U.S. 315; Deputron v. Young, 134 U.S. 249; Lehigh Mining &c. Co. v. Kelly, 160 U.S. 327.

The question raised by this writ of error is whether the circuit court erred in dismissing the plaintiffs' suit for the alleged reason that the value of the property in dispute did not amount to the sum of $2,000, exclusive of interest and costs, and that therefore such suit did not really and substantially involve a dispute or controversy properly within the jurisdiction [18 S.Ct. 295] of said circuit court; and, as prescribed by the fifth section of the Act of March 3, 1891,

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such question of the jurisdiction of the circuit court alone is presented for our decision. Shields v. Coleman, 157 U.S. 168.

The question whether the land in dispute was of a value sufficient to give the circuit court jurisdiction was purely one of fact, and as that question was not submitted to the jury, but was passed on by the court upon affidavit, it is now suggested that upon a writ of error, this Court cannot consider the facts disclosed by the affidavits, but is restricted to any errors of law shown by the record.

Undoubtedly the general rule is that upon a writ of error, only matters of law appearing on the face of the record can be considered, and that evidence, whether written or oral and whether given to the court or to the jury, does not become a part of the record unless made so by some regular proceeding at the time of the trial, and before the rendition of the judgment. Whatever the error may be, and in whatever stage of the cause it may have occurred, it must appear in the record, else it cannot be revised in a court of error exercising jurisdiction according to the course of the common law, and ordinarily a bill of exceptions lies only upon some point arising either upon the admission or rejection of evidence, or is a matter of law arising from a fact found, or not denied, and which has been overruled by the court. Arthurs v. Hart, 17 How. 6.

The difficulty arises out of the peculiar character of the legislation which we are now considering. Prior to the passage of the act of 1875, questions going to the jurisdiction of the court could only be raised by a plea in abatement in the nature of a plea to the jurisdiction. See Farmington v. Pillsbury, 114 U.S. 138, and cases there cited. If such a plea presented a question of law upon the face of the record, this Court could review the decision of the court below upon such question of law. If the plea asserted matters of fact dehors the record, it was open for the parties to agree upon a statement of facts, or to take exceptions to the rulings of the court in admitting or rejecting...

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