Clark v. Allen

Decision Date09 June 1947
Docket NumberNo. 626,626
Citation67 S.Ct. 1431,91 L.Ed. 1633,331 U.S. 503
PartiesCLARK v. ALLEN et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 503-505 intentionally omitted] Harry Leroy Jones, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

S. C. Masterson, of Richmond, Cal., for respondents.

Everett W. Mattoon, of Los Angeles, Cal., for the State of California, as amicus curiae by special leave of Court.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Alvina Wagner, a resident of California, died in 1942, leaving real and personl property situate there. By a will dated December 23, 1941, and admitted to probate in a California court in 1942, she bequeathed her entire estate to four relatives who are nationals and residents of Germany. Six heirs-at-law, residents of California, filed a petition for determination of heirship in the probate proceedings claiming that the German nationals were ineligible as legatees under California law.1

There has never been a hearing on that petition. For in 1943 the Alien Property Custodian, to whose functions the Attorney General has recently succeeded,2 vested in himself all right, title and interest of the German nationals in the estate of this decedent.3 He thereupon instituted this action in the District Court against the executor under the will and the California heirs-at-law for a determination that they have no interest in the estate and that he was entitled to the entire net estate after payment of administration and other expenses. The District Court granted judgment for the Custodian on the pleadings. Crowley v. Allen, 52 F.Supp. 850. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed holding that the District Court was without jurisdiction of the subject matter. Allen v. Markham, 9 Cir., 147 F.2d 136. The case came here on certiorari. We held that the District Court had jurisdiction of the suit and remanded the cause to the Circuit Court of Appeals for consideration of the merits. Markham v. Allen, 326 U.S. 490, 66 S.Ct. 296, 90 L.Ed. 256. The Circuit Court of Appeals thereupon held for respondents. Allen v. Markham, 9 Cir., 156 F.2d 653. The case is here again on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted becuase the issues raised are of national importance.

First. Our problem starts with the Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Consular Rights with Germany, signed December 8, 1923, and proclaimed October 14, 1925. 44 Stat. 2132. It has different provisons governing the testamentary disposition of realty and personalty, which we will treat separately. The one pertaining to realty, contained in Article IV, reads as follows: 'Where, on the death of any person holding real or other immovable property or interests therein within the territories of one High Contracting Party, such property or interests therein wuld, by th e laws of the country or by a testamentary disposition, descend or pass to a national of the other High Contracting Party, whether resident or non-resident, were he not disqualified by the laws of the country where such property or interests therein is or are situated, such national shall be allowed a term of three years in which to sell the same, this term to be reasonably prolonged if circumstances render it necessary, and withdraw the proceeds thereof, without restraint or interference, and exempt from any succession, probate or administrative duties or charges other than those which may be imposed in like cases upon the nationals of the country from which such proceeds may be drawn.'

The rights secured are in terms a right to sell within a specified time plus a right to withdraw the proceeds and an exemption from discriminatory taxation. It is plain that those rights extend to the German heirs of 'any person' holding realty in the United States. And though they are not expressed in terms of ownership or the right to inherit, that is their import and meaning. Techt v. Hughes, 229 N.Y. 222, 240, 128 N.E. 185, 191, 11 A.L.R. 166; Ahrens v. Ahrens, 144 Iowa, 486, 489, 123 N.W. 164, 166, Ann.Cas.1912A, 1098. And see People ex rel. Atty. Gen. v. Gerke, 5 Cal. 381; Scharpf v. Schmidt, 172 Ill. 255, 50 N.E. 182; Colson v. Carlson, 116 Kan. 593, 227 P. 360; Goos v. Brocks, 117 Neb. 750, 223 N.W. 13.

If, therefore, the provisions of the treaty have not been superseded or abrogated they prevail over any requirements of California law which conflict with them. Hauenstein v. Lynham, 100 U.S. 483, 488—490, 25 L.Ed. 628.

Second. The Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that these provisions of the treaty had been abrogated. It relied for that conclusion on the Trading with the Enemy Act, 40 Stat. 411, 50 U.S.C.App. § 1 et seq., 50 U.S.C.A.Appendix, § 1 et seq., as amended by the First War Powers Act, 55 Stat. 839, 50 U.S.C.App.Supp. 1, § 5, 50 U.S.C.A.Appendix, § 5, and the Treaty of Berlin, 42 Stat.1939.

We start from the premise that the outbreak of war does not necessarily suspend or abrogate treaty provisions. Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts v. Town of New Haven, 8 Wheat. 464, 494, 495, 5 L.Ed. 662. There may of course be such an incompatibility between a particular treaty provision and the maintenance of a state of war as to make clear that it should not be enforced. Karnuth v. United States, 279 U.S. 231, 49 S.Ct. 274, 73 L.Ed. 677. Or the Chief Executive or the Congress may have formulated a national policy quite inconsistent with the enforcement of a treaty in whole or in part. This was the view stated in Techt v. Hughes, supra, and we believe it to be the correct one. That case concerned the right of a resident alien enemy to inherit real property in New York. Under New York law, as it then stood, an alien enemy had no such right. The question was whether the right was granted by a reciprocal inheritance provision in a treaty with Austria which was conched in terms practically identical with those we have here. The court found nothing incompatible with national policy in permitting the resident alien enemy to have the right of inheritance granted by the treaty. Cardozo, J., speaking for the court, stated the applicable principles as follows: 'The question is not what states may do after was has supervened, and this without breach of their duty as members of the society of nations. The question is what courts are to presume that they have done. * * * President and Senate may denounce the treaty, and thus terminate its life. Congress may enact an inconsistent rule, which will control the action of the courts (Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698, 13 S.Ct. 1016, 37 L.Ed. 905). The treaty of peace itself may set up new relations, and terminate earlier compacts, either tacitly or expressly. * * * But until some one of these things is done, until some one of these events occurs, while war is still lagrant, a nd the will of the political departments of the government unrevealed, the courts, as I view their function, play a humbler and more cautious part. It is not for them to denounce treaties generally, en bloc. Their part it is, as one provision or another is involved in some actual controversy before them, to determine whether, alone, or by force of connection with an inseparable scheme, the provision is inconsistent with the policy or safety of the nation in the emergency of war, and hence presumably intended to be limited to times of peace. The mere fact that other portions of the treaty are suspended, or even abrogated, is not conclusive. The treaty does not fall in its entirety unless it has the character of an indivisible act.' 229 N.Y. at pages 242—243, 128 N.E. at page 192, 11 A.L.R. 166.

To the same effect see Goos v. Brocks, supra; State ex rel. v. Reardon, 120 Kan. 614, 245 P. 158, 47 A.L.R. 452.4

We do not think that the national policy expressed in the Trading with the Enemy Act, as amended, is incompatible with the right of inheritance granted German aliens under Article IV of the treaty. It is true that since the declaration of war on December 11, 1941, 55 Stat. 796, 50 U.S.C.A. note preceding section 1, the Act see Lenoir, The Effect of War on have prohibited the entry of German nationals into this country,5 have outlawed communications or transactions of a commercial character with them,6 and have precluded the removal of money or property from this country for their use or account.7 We assume that these provisions abrogate the parts of Article IV of the treaty dealing with the liquidation of the inheritance and the withdrawal of the proceeds, even though the Act provides that the prohibited activities and transactions may be licensed.8 But the Act and the Executive Orders do not evince such hostility to ownership of property by alien enemies as to imply that its acquisition conflicts with the national policy. There is, indeed, tacit recognition that acquisition of property by inheritance is compatible with the scheme of the Act. For the custodian is expressly empowered to represent the alien enemy heir in all legal proceedings, including those incident to succession.9 Much reliance for the contrary view is placed on the power to vest alien property in an agency of the United States.10 But the power to vest, i.e., to take away, what may be owned or acquired does not reveal a policy at odds with the reciprocal right to inherit granted by Article IV of the treaty. For the power to vest is discretionary not mandatory. The loss of the inheritance by vesting is, therefore, not inevitable. But more important, vesting does not necessarily deprive the alien enemy of all the benefits of his inheritance. If he owes money to American creditors, the property will be applied to the payment of his debts.11

To give the power to vest the effect which respondents urge would, indeed, prove too much. That power is not restricted to property of alien enemies. It extends to the property of nationals of any foreign country, friend or enemy. 12 Provisions comprable to that contained in Article IV of the present treaty are...

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