Asa Green, Plaintiff In Error v. the Lessee of Henry Neal, Defendant In Error

Decision Date01 January 1832
Citation6 Pet. 291,8 L.Ed. 402,31 U.S. 291
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the circuit court of the United States for the district of West Tennessee.

Mr Grundy for the plaintiff in error; Mr Isaacks for the defendant.

The facts of the case are fully stated in the opinion of the Court, delivered by Mr Justice M'LEAN.

This writ of error is prosecuted to reverse a judgment of the circuit court for West Tennessee. An action of ejectment was prosecuted by Neal in that court, to recover the possession of six hundred and forty acres of land. The issue was joined, and at the trial, the defendant relied upon the statute of limitations, and prayed certain instructions of the court to the jury. Instructions were given, as stated in the following bill of exceptions.

'In the trial, the plaintiff introduced in evidence a grant from the state of North Carolina, dated _____, to Willoughby Williams, for the land in controversy, and deduced a regular chain of conveyances to plaintiff's lessor, and proved defendant in possession of the land in question at the time suit was brought; defendant introduced a deed from Andrew Jackson to Edward Dillon, and proved that the defendant held by a lease from Dillon; and also in support of Dillon's title, introduced evidence tending to prove that persons claiming under and for Dillon, had been more than seven years in possession of the premises in dispute, adverse to the plaintiffs: upon which the court charged the jury, that according to the present state of decision in the Supreme Court of the United States, they could not charge that defendant's title was made good by the statute of limitations.'

The decision of the point raised by the bill of exceptions in this case, is one of great importance; both as it respects the amount of property which may be affected by it, and the principle which it involves.

In the case of Patton's Lessee v. Easton, which was brought to this court by writ of error in 1816, the same question, which was raised by the bill of exceptions, was then decided. But it is contended, that under the peculiar circumstances of the case now before the court, they ought not to feel themselves bound by their former decision. This court, in the case of Powell's Lessee v. Green, 2 Peters, 240, gave another decision, under the authority of the one just named; but the question was not argued before the court.

The question involves, in the first place, the construction of the statutes of limitations passed in 1715 and in 1797. The former was adopted by the state of Tennessee, from North Carolina; the third section of which provides, 'that no person or persons, or their heirs, which hereafter shall have any right or title to any lands, tenements or hereditaments, shall thereunto enter or make claim, but within seven years after his, her or their right or title shall descend or accrue; and in default thereof, such person or persons, so not entering or making default, shall be utterly excluded and disabled from any entry or claim thereafter to be made.' The fourth section provides, after enumerating certain disabilities, and the time within which suit must be brought, after they shall cease, that 'all possessions held without suing such claim as aforesaid, shall be a perpetual bar against all, and all manner of persons whatever, that the expectation of heirs may not, in a short time, leave much land unpossessed, and titles so perplexed that no man will know from whom to take or buy land.'

In the year 1797, the legislature, in order to settle the 'true construction of the existing laws respecting seven years' possession,' enact 'that in all cases, wherever any person or persons shall have had seven years' peaceable possession of any land, by virtue of a grant or deed of conveyance founded upon a grant, and no legal claim by suit in law, by such, set up to said land, within the above term, that then, and in that case, the person or persons so holding possession as aforesaid, shall be entitled to hold possession in preference to all other claimants, such quantity of land as shall be specified in his, her or their said grant or deed of conveyance, founded on a grant as aforesaid.' This act further provides, that those who neglect, for the term of seven years, to assert their claim, shall be barred.

This court, in the conclusion of their opinion in the case of Patton's Lessee v. Easton, say, 'this question, too, has at length, been decided in the supreme court of the state. Subsequent to the division of opinion on this question in the circuit court, two cases have been decided in the supreme court for the state of Tennessee, which have settled the construction of the act of 1797. It has been decided, that a possession of seven years is a bar only when held 'under a grant, or a deed founded on a grant.' The deed must be connected with the grant. This court concurs in that opinion. A deed cannot be 'founded on a grant,' which gives a title not derived in law or equity from that grant, and the words, founded on a grant, are too important to be discarded.'

The two decided cases to which reference is made above, are Lillard v. Elliot, and Douglass v. Bledsoe's Heirs. These cases were decided in the year 1815; and this court considered, that they settled the construction of the statute of 1797. But it is now made to appear that these decisions were made under such circumstances, that they were never considered, in the state of Tennessee, as fully settling the construction of the act.

In the case of Lillard v. Elliot, it seems but two judges concurred on the point, the court being composed of four; and in the case of Weatherhead v. Douglass, there was great contrariety of opinion among the judges, on the point of either legal or equitable connexion. The question was frequently raised before the supreme court of Tennessee; but the construction of the two statutes of limitations was never considered as finally settled until 1825, when the case of Gray and Reeder v. Darby's Lessee was decided.

In this cause, an elaborate review of the cases which had arisen under the statute, is taken, and the construction of both statutes was given, that it is not necessary, to entitle an individual to the benefits of the statutes, that he should show a connected title, either legal or equitable. That if he prove an adverse possession of seven years under a deed, before suit is brought, and show that the land has been granted, he brings himself within the statutes.

Since this decision the law has been considered as settled in Tennessee, and there has been so general an acquiescence in all the courts of the state, that the point is not now raised or discussed. This construction has become a rule of property in the state, and numerous suits involving title have been settled by it.

Had this been the settled construction of these statutes when the decision was made by this court, in the case of Patton's Lessee v. Easton, there can be no doubt, that that opinion would have conformed to it. But the question is now raised, whether this court will adhere to its own decision, made under the circumstances stated, or yield to that of the judicial tribunals of Tennessee. This point has never before been directly decided by this court, on a question of general importance. The cases are numerous where the court have adopted the constructions given to the statute of a state by its supreme judicial tribunal; but it has never been decided, that this court will overrule their own adjudication, establishing an important rule of property, where it has been founded on the construction of a statute made in conformity to the decisions of the state at the time, so as to conform to a different construction adopted afterwards by the state.

This is a question of grave import, and should be approached with great deliberation. It is deeply interesting, in every point of view in which it may be considered. As a rule of property, it is important; and equally so, as it regards the system under which the powers of this tribunal are exercised.

It may be proper to examine in what light the decisions of the state courts, in giving a construction to their own statutes, have been considered by this court.

In the case of M'Keen v. Delancy's Lessee, reported in 5 Cranch, 22, this court held, that the acknowledgement of a deed before a justice of the supreme court, under a statute which required the acknowledgement to be made before a justice of the peace, having been long practised in Pennsylvania, and sanctioned by her tribunals, must be considered as within the statute.

The chief justice, in giving the opinion of the court in the case of Bodley v. Taylor, 5 Cranch, 221, says, in reference to the jurisdiction of a court of equity, 'had this been a case of the first impression, some contrariety of opinion would, perhaps, have existed on this point. But it has been sufficiently shown, that the practice of resorting to a court of chancery in order to set up an equitable against the legal title, received in its origin the sanction of the court of appeals, while Kentucky remained a part of Virginia, and has been so confirmed by an uninterrupted series of decisions, as to be incorporated into their system, and to be taken into view in the consideration of every title to lands in that country. Such a principle cannot now be shaken.'

In the case of Taylor v. Brown, 5 Cranch, 255, the court say, in reference to their decision in the case of Bodley v. Taylor, ...

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