25 U.S. 611 (1827), Ramsay v. Allegre

Citation:25 U.S. 611, 6 L.Ed. 746
Party Name:RAMSAY against ALLEGRE.
Case Date:March 02, 1827
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 611

25 U.S. 611 (1827)

6 L.Ed. 746


United States Supreme Court.

March 02, 1827



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Maryland.

This was a libel filed in the District Court by the appellant, Ramsey, against the respondent, Allegre, alleging that the appellant, at the special instance and request of the respondent, owner, ship's husband, or consignee of the schooner Dorothea, had performed various work and labour, and found and provided various materials for the use of the said schooner, to equip and prepare her for a voyage on the high seas, amounting to the sum of 2,428 dollars, 84 cents; that the appellant had often applied to the respondent for payment, and been refused; and praying process according to the course of the Admiralty, &c. A plea was filed by the respondent, alleging, among other things, that he had given the libellant his negotiable promissory note for the debt. It appeared, at the hearing, that the appellant had furnished the materials in question at the respondent's request, and

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that the latter had given his negotiable promissory note for the same, which the appellant accepted, giving the following receipt therefor: 'Received a note, at four months, which, when paid, will be in full for the above amount.' The note not having been paid, this suit was brought. The District Court dismissed the libel, upon the ground, that the jurisdiction of that Court, as an Instance Court of Admiralty, in the cause, was waived by the acceptance of the promissory note; and the decree having been affirmed in the Circuit Court, upon the same ground, the cause was brought by appeal to this Court.

Feb. 19th.

The Attorney General and Mr. Meredith, for the appellant, argued, that the District Courts, proceeding as Courts of admiralty and maritime jurisdiction, might take cognizance of material suits by material men, eitherin personam or in rem. [a]The only question here was, whether the jurisdiction was waived by the appellant's taking the note as conditional payment. The note did not extinguish the debt, and, consequently, could not affect the jurisdiction which originally attached on account of the nature of the debt. Without some special agreement to consider the note as payment, it could not be so regarded. It only operated as a suspension of the remedy during the time allowed for its payment. If unpaid, the party might resort to his original right of action, as if no note had been given. [b]Such is the doctrine of the common law; and the civil law, which gave the rule to the admiralty, would be found in accordance. A novation is the substitution of a new for an old debt, by which the latter is extinguished. It may be made of a debt payable at a future day, or of a debt presently due, by a new engagement, allowing a term of credit. But the consent of the creditor must be positively declared, as the law will not presume that he means to abandon his rights under the first contract. [c]No authority or principle could be found to warrant

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the assertion, that, although the original contract in this case was not extinguished, the suspension of the right of action took away the jurisdiction of the admiralty, so that it could not again be resorted to.

Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Meyer, contra, insisted, that the promissory note given in this case was a personal security taken on land, and in all respects assimilated the case to that of the claim for the master's wages. Although, in general, locality might not be the test of admiralty jurisdiction, it might reasonably be contended that where the credit is personal, and the security of a kind exclusively cognizable at common law the locality should fix the jurisdiction. In the case of contracts, the admirality jurisdiction, in personam, ought to be merely co-extensive with the proceeding in rem: and as the domestic character of the vessel freed the thing from jurisdiction, the person of the owner ought also to be exonerated. [d]As a security had been accepted, which had the effect of extinguishing a common law lien during the term of the note, no process could have been instituted in the admiralty on the original contract; and the idea of reviving a jurisdiction, which had been thus suspended, was a novelty not countenanced by any legal analogy. Supposing the jurisdiction of the Admiralty to be dependant upon the existence of a lien as defined by positive law, the authorities would show that such a lien was extinguished at common law by a new agreement. [e]It had been expressly determined, that in cases of dealings or obligations, naturally within the appropriate jurisdiction of the Admiralty, if a special contract be entered into, or a special security be taken, the common law jurisdiction will attach as in ordinary cases, even though the new agreement does not operate technically by way of extinguishment. [f]

March 2d.

Mr. Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court: that, as it did not appear by the record, that the note had been tendered to be given up, or actually surrendered,

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at the hearing in the Court below, the decree would be affirmed, it not being necessary to consider the general question of jurisdiction.

Mr. Justice JOHNSON.

I concur with my brethren in sustaining the decree below, but cannot consent to place my decision upon the ground on which they have placed theirs. I think it high time to check this silent and stealing progress of the Admiralty in acquiring jurisdiction to which it has no pretensions. Unfounded doctrines ought at once to be met and put down; and dicta, as well as decisions, that cannot bear examination, ought not to be evaded and permitted to remain on the books to be commented upon, and acquiesced in, by Courts of justice, or to be read and respected by those whose opinions are to be formed upon books. It affords facilities for giving an undue bias to public opinion, and, I will add, of interpolating doctrines which belong not to the law.

There need be no stronger illustration given than this case affords. Here is a libel, in personam, on a contract, in the Admiralty filed expressly upon the authority of the case of The General Smith. I had never read the report of that case, that I recollect, until the argument in this cause; or, if I had, I attached so little importance to any thing in it besides the point that it decides, as to have forgotten that such doctrines were to be found in the reports of our decisions. But, upon being examined, what does it amount to? A gentleman of the bar, whose knowledge, particularly in the Admiralty, commanded the highest respect in this Court, is reported to have laid down a doctrine in very explicit terms, which, I will venture to say, has no authority in law; and the Court, carried away probably by the influence of his concessions, echoes them in terms which are not only not called for by the case, but actually, as I conceive, contradicted by the decision which is rendered.

The correctness of the decision in the case of The General Smith, cannot be questioned; it dismisses the libel upon the ground, 'that material men and mechanics, furnishing repairs to a domestic ship, have no particular lien upon the ship itself for the recovery of their demands.'

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But why have they no lien upon the ship? or, to speak more correctly, why are they precluded from a remedy in the Admiralty for subjecting the ship to arrest and sale in order to satisfy their demands? It is because jurisdiction over the contract has been taken from the Courts of Admiralty, and the exercise of jurisdiction, in such a case, prohibited to them by the common law Courts of Great Britain for hundreds of years. And it is a fact of the most positive certainty and notoriety, that so far from retaining jurisdiction over this contract in personam, after being driven from jurisdiction in rem, that the former was first surrendered, and that in the most unequivocal terms.

I refer to the resolutions of February, 1632, adopted by the King in council, and subscribed by all the judges in England, and to be found in the collection of the sea laws, and in various other books; by the second section of the second article of which it is declared; that 'if suit be in the Court of Admiralty for building, or mending, saving, or necessary victualing of a ship,against the ship itself, and not against any party by name, but such as for his interest makes himself party, (i. e. a claimant,) no prohibition is to be granted, though this be done within the realm.'

This resolution implies an express recognition, that if such suit be instituted against the person, a prohibition shall issue. And this I hold to be the test of admiralty jurisdiction; for wherever a prohibition will issue, the jurisdiction has been taken away from the admiralty, or it never possessed it. And, accordingly, for two hundred years has this jurisdiction been abandoned by the British Courts, with the single exception of seamen's wages; an exception, of which it may emphatically be said, 'probat regulam.' For, if any one will take the trouble to refer to the language of Ch. J. Holt, in the case of Clay v. Snelgrave, he will there find it said, 'that it is an indulgence that the Courts at Westminster permit mariners to sue for their wages in the Admiralty Court, because they may all join in suit, and is grounded upon the principle, that 'communis error facit jus." (Lord Raym. 576.)

This privilege is denied to the master, and even to a mate succeeding to the master, when he sues for his wages as

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master; so rigid are the Courts of Westminster in confining the admiralty to the few contracts over which it is permitted to retain jurisdiction. And when it is argued, that this...

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