33 U.S. 88 (1834), Watson v. Mercer

Citation:33 U.S. 88, 8 L.Ed. 876
Case Date:March 08, 1834
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 88

33 U.S. 88 (1834)

8 L.Ed. 876




United States Supreme Court.

March 08, 1834


ERROR to the supreme court of the state of Pennsylvania.

In 1826, the defendants in error, John Mercer and Margaret Mercer, instituted an action of ejectment in the district court of the city and county of Lancaster, against Jane Watson and others, the plaintiffs in error, for the recovery of a tract of land in Lancaster county, and a verdict and judgment, under the charge of the court in favour of the plaintiffs, were rendered in their favour.

The plaintiffs prosecuted a writ of error to the supreme court of Pennsylvania, and in 1832 that court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

The land in controversy was part of a tract held under a patent granted by the proprietaries of Pennsylvania to Samuel Patterson on the 19th October 1743; and by regular descent became vested in Margaret Patterson, the daughter of the patentee, who afterwards intermarried with James Mercer; who had five children by a former wife, now represented by the defendants in error.

For the purpose of vesting the land in controversy in her husband in fee simple, Margaret Mercer on the 30th May 1785, together with her husband, James Mercer, executed a conveyance thereof to a certain Nathan Thompson, who on the same day reconveyed the said land to James Mercer in fee. This deed was not acknowledged by Margaret Mercer according to the forms prescribed by the act of assembly of Pennsylvania of 1770, enacted for the purpose of making the conveyances of real estate by femes covert valid.

After the death of Margaret Mercer in 1805, David Watson, in right of his wife, the heir at law of Margaret Mercer, to whom, if the conveyance of 30th May 1785 was invalid, the land in controversy had descended; instituted an ejectment for the same, alleging that the acknowledgment of the deed being defective, the same was absolutely void. In this suit Watson and wife recovered the premises, and went into possession thereof. Afterwards John and Margaret Mercer instituted an ejectment against Watson, then in possession of the premises, and in 1823 that suit was decided in the supreme court of Pennsylvania in favour of the defendants in the ejectment; thus affirming the decision in the first case.

Page 90

On the 3d day of April 1826 the legislature of Pennsylvania made the following law.

'A supplement to an act entitled 'an act for the better confirmation of the estates of persons holding or claiming under feme coverts, and for establishing a mode in which husband and wife may hereafter convey their estates.'

'Whereas, by the act of assembly, to which this is a supplement, it is enacted that the estates of feme coverts may be transferred by deed executed by the husband and wife, and by them acknowledged before certain officers: And whereas, under this act, estates of great value have been bona fide sold by husband and wife for a legal and sufficient consideration, and the deeds therefor have been by them acknowledged before the proper officer; but, in many cases, the mode of making such acknowledgement hath been imperfectly set forth in the certificate: And it hath been held by the supreme court, that deeds transferring the rights and interests of feme coverts are invalid and void, unless certain requisites of the acknowledgement of such deeds provided by the said act, shall appear upon the face of the certificate of such acknowledgement to have been pursued, and in all such cases it is but just and reasonable that persons who hold such estates, should not, in any case, be disturbed in the enjoyment of them thus equitably acquired, nor divested thereof under any pretence whatsoever: Now, for the purpose of carrying into effect the real intent of the parties, and of quieting and securing the estates so transferred,

'Section 1. Be it enacted, by the senate and house of representatives, of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in general assembly met, and it is hereby enacted, by the authority of the same, That no grant, bargain, sale, feoffment, deed of conveyance, lease, release, or other assurance of any lands, tenements and hereditaments whatsoever, heretofore bona fide made and executed by husband and wife, and acknowledged by them before some judge, justice of the peace, or other officer authorized by law within this state, or an officer in one of the United States, to take such acknowledgement, or which may be so made, executed and acknowledged as aforesaid, before the 1st day of September next, shall be deemed, held, or adjudged invalid, or defective, or insufficient in law, or avoided or prejudiced by reason of any informality or omission in setting

Page 91

forth the particulars of the acknowledgement made before such officer as aforesaid, in the certificate thereof, but all and every such grant, bargain and sale, feoffment, deed of conveyance, lease, release, or other assurance so made, executed, and acknowledged as aforesaid, shall be as good, valid, and effectual in law, for transferring, passing, and conveying the estate, right, title and interest of such husband and wife, of, in, and to the lands, tenements, and hereditaments mentioned in the same, as if all the requisites and particulars of such acknowledgement mentioned in the act to which this is supplementary, were particularly set forth in the certificate thereof, or appeared upon the face of the same.'

In 1829, the defendants in error, John and Margaret Mercer, instituted another ejectment for the land, claiming, that the deed of 30th of May 1785 had been made valid by the act of assembly of 1826, and a verdict for the plaintiff was rendered in the district court of the city and county of Lancaster, the judgment of which court upon the verdict was affirmed in the supreme court of Pennsylvania. From that judgment of the supreme court, the case came before this court by writ of error.

The case was presented to the court on printed arguments, by Mr Hopkins and Mr Montgomery for the plaintiffs in error, and by Mr Rogers for the defendants. As the court decided no other points but those in which the constitutionality of the act of 1826 was presented, the arguments upon the other questions raised in the case are omitted.

The counsel for the plaintiffs in error contended,

1. That, under the laws and constitution of Pennsylvania, and the constitution of the United States, the title and possession of the plaintiffs in error to the land in dispute was sacred, and could be disturbed or violated by no judicial proceedings known to the said laws and constitutions; and, a fortiori, by no legislative enactment.

2. That the act of 3d April 1826, as applied to this case, is unconstitutional and void; divesting the vested rights of the plaintiffs in error to the property in dispute, and impairing the obligation of the contracts under which they recovered and held the same; transcending the power of the legislative branch

Page 92

of government; and subverting all the protection guarantied to property and contracts by the constitution of the United States, as well as of the state of Pennsylvania.

For the plaintiffs in error, it was argued by Mr Montgomery, that the legislature of Pennsylvania could not, by the act of April 3d 1806, divest the property of the Watsons and vest it in the Mercers. For if this act be construed to be applied to this case, and be considered as a constitutional exercise of legislative power, this will be the inevitable result.

The grant of the proprietaries to Samuel Patterson on the 19th October 1753, was recognised by the legislature on the 27th November 1779, and the act of that date, 1 Smith 479-481, confirming the title of the grantees, amounted to a new grant and a contract, that Samuel Patterson should hold the land thus acquired to him, his heirs and assigns; and the obligation of this contract was, as he had fully paid for the estate, that he should hold it according to the laws of the land, and not be divested of it, except by due course of law. The legislature would have had no right to resume it, or grant it to another. Terret v. Taylor, 9 Cranch 43,292; Pawlet v. Clark, 4 Wheaton 683; Fletcher v. Peck, 6 Cranch 87; New Jersey v. Taylor, 7 Cranch 164. And surely, what they cannot do directly, they will not be permitted to accomplish by indirect means. Sarah Watson recovered, in the suits of 1805, by virtue of the obligation of this contract, as contained in the grant. The land was withheld from her; she applied for redress to the judicial power, whose duty it was to expound, administer and enforce the law, Ogden v. Blackledge, 2 Cranch 272; and she recovered her estate. Why? Because she had a vested right to it. A vested right is defined to be 'the power to do certain actions, or possess certain things according to the laws of the land.' 1 Adams (New Hampshire) 203; 12 S. and R. 360. Immediately upon the death of her sister, the right descended to her, and it became eo instante, vested in her. Whence was it derived? From the patent, and from its confirmation by the act of the legislature in 1779. This was a contract executed; and it is respectfully urged, that in Pennsylvania, there can be no vested right to land, that is not derived from contract. The whole system of land titles in Pennsylvania rests on this basis, and there is no trace of any title

Page 93

in that state, which did not originate in a grant, 12 S. and R. 371-3,380; or was perfected by patent, after having incepted by improvement.

And no vested right can be taken away or interfered with, except by impairing the obligation of the contract on which it is based, and whence it springs.

Can it be doubted that this...

To continue reading