William Elmoyle, For the Use of Isaac Bailey v. John Cohen, Administrator of Levy Florence

Decision Date01 January 1839
Citation13 Pet. 312,38 U.S. 312,10 L.Ed. 177
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ON a certificate of division between the judges of the sixth Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Georgia.

William M'Elmoyle, a citizen of the state of South Carolina, suing for the use of Isaac S. Bailey, also a citizen of that state, presented a petition in 1835 to the Circuit Court of the United States, for the district of Georgia, stating that Levy Florence had died intestate; and having before his death resided in the state of South Carolina, he had obtained a judgment against him in the Court of Common Pleas for the city of Charleston, for $968 7, on a promissory note, on the 16th day of February, 1822, which remains unsatisfied; an exemplification of which judgment in due form was exhibited to the Court with the petition.

The defendant, a citizen of Georgia, to which state Levy Florence removed after seven years from the rendition of the judgment, and in which state he resided at the time of his death, pleaded the statute of limitation of the state of Georgia; which the plea alleges limits such actions to five years from the cause of action: and he afterwards pleaded that there is no statute of the state of South Carolina which limits suits upon judgments therein to any particular time, nor is there any statute of limitations in that state applicable to judgments, but that a statute was passes by the legislature of Georgia, on the 7th day of December, 1805, which provides and declares that all actions of debt on judgment obtained in Courts other than the Courts of Georgia, shall be commenced and prosecuted within five years from the rendition of such judgment, and not afterwards; and that for seven years after the rendition of the judgment on which the suit is brought, Levy Florence was a resident and citizen of the state of Georgia, and on suit on the judgment was commenced against him, nor for two years after the defendant, John J. Cohen, had been the duly qualified administrator of the said Levy Florence. The defendant for further plea states that he has not funds of the estate of Levy Florence sufficient to pay the whole of the judgment, and to pay the other debts claimed as due from the estate.

Upon the trial of the cause the following questions occurred, upon which the opinions of the judges were opposed; and the same were certified to the Supreme Court.

1st. Whether the statute of limitations of Georgia can be pleaded to an action in that state, founded upon a judgment rendered in the state of Sough Carolina?

2d. Whether in the administration of assets in Georgia, a judgment rendered in South Carolina, upon a promissory note, against the intestate when in life, should be paid in preference to simple contract debts?

The case was submitted to the Court on printed arguments by Mr. Longstreet for the plaintiff; and by Mr. King for the defendant.

Mr. Longstreet, for the plaintiff.

Two questions are raised in this case:

1. Can the statute of limitations of Georgia be pleaded to an action founded on a judgment in South Carolina?

2. If it cannot be, is that judgment a debt of higher dignity, in the administration of assets in Georgia, than a simple contract debt?

Both questions seem to have been virtunally decided by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The first was certainly settled by the case of Mills vs. Duryee, 7 Cranch, 481. It was there ruled that no plea could be urged against a judgment from a state Court, duly authenticated, but the plea of nul teil record. If this be true, it is but changing the terms of the same proposition to say that the statute of limitations cannot be pleaded to an action founded upon such a judgment. The question there was, as it is here, a question of pleading. Mr. Justice Story, in delivering the opinion of the Court in that case, says, 'Congress have declared the effect of the record, by declaring what faith and credit shall be given to it. It remains only, then, to inquire, in every case, what is the effect of a judgment in the state where it is rendered? Let us make the inquiry, and the answer will be found in the concessions of the parties, that the effect of this judgment, in South Carolina, would be to silence the plea of the statute of limitations.

The doctrine of Mills vs. Duryee was afterwards confirmed by Hampton vs. M'Connel, 3 Wheat. 234. Mr. Chief Justice Marshall there says, 'The judgment of a state Court should have the same credit, validity, and effect, in every other Court of the United States, which it had in the state where it was pronounced; and whatever pleas would be good to a suit thereon in such state, and none others, could be pleaded in any other Court in the United States.' Accordingly it was again decided that nil debet could not be pleaded to the suit then in question.

The same decision had been long before made in the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Pennsylvania, Armstrong vs. Carson's executor's, 2 Dall. 302; and it has been repeated by the judges of the highest Courts in each of the several states.

In Morton and Co. vs. Naylor, 1 Hill's South Carolina Rep. 439, the very question now before the Court was adjudicated. It was ruled in that case, that the statute of limitations of South Carolina was not a good plea to an action upon a judgment from a sister state. It cannot be necessary to multiply authorities upon this head.

What, then, is the doctrine of these cases? It is, that the judgment of a state Court carries with it into every state all its original attributes, energies, and incidents; that it goes forth armed with the powers of the Court that pronounced it, and clothed with the authority of the laws under which it was pronounced; that it is at home whithersoever it goes, through the whole length and breadth of the Union; that, in relation to judicial proceedings, the states are not foreign to each other. Less than this cannot be extracted from the fourth article, first section, of the Constitution, and the act of Congress, made in pursuance of it. By that article, the states reciprocally pledged themselves to each other, that they would repose implicit faith in the records of every state; that they would accredit them, receive them, admit them, acknowledge them to be true. There is hardly a Court in the Union (it is believed not one) that has as high authority as this, for pronouncing its own judgments conclusive. The states have generally contented themselves with organizing their several departments of government, allotting to each its respective powers, and leaving the consequences of this allotment to the deductions of common sense or common law. Thus, to ascertain the force and effect of a judgment of a state Court, within the limits of that state, we appeal to the common law; and there we find that such a judgment imports absolute verity. But, in order to ascertain the force and effect of judgment of one state when carried into another, we appeal to the lex scripta—the paramount law; and there we learn that it is entitled to 'full faith and credit.' Are these terms less comprehensive or less impressive than 'absolute verity?' Proceed they from a fountain less sacred? Is it possible, then, to urge any thing against such judgments, which will not apply with equal force to all judgments?

The letter of the Constitution is not more pointed to the purpose of this argument, than the reason and spirit of it. The framers of that instrument foresaw that there would be a perpetual change and interchange of citizens between the several states. They had confederated a number of bodies politic; they had secured to each a similar form of government; they had placed over all, in some respects, a controlling, and, in all respects, a protecting power. They, had, therefore, sundered some of the strongest ties that bind man to his native land, and left him free to choose a climate congenial of this constitution, and an occupation suited to his taste or habits, without forfeiting the protection of his own laws. To have incorporated no provision in the Constitution which would prevent men, thus circumstanced, from eluding the operation of a judgment, by a simple change of residence, would have argued a blindness in the sages who framed that instrument, that might be better imputed to any other body of men that ever lived. And if they have done no more than authorize suits to be instituted upon the judgments in question, subject to all defences that might have been set up to the original action, the fourth article and first section of the Constitution is but a deathless memorial of their folly; for all this might have been done, and would have been done, from a principle of comity between the states, without any law to that effect. It is done by all civilized nations. If they have only authorized suits to be instituted upon such judgments, leaving it with the states to regulate the defences to such suits, they have done no more, in effect, than to declare that suits may be prosecuted in the several states, if the states choose to permit them to be prosecuted. Very different the conduct of those profound statesmen. They declared that 'full faith and credit should be given in each state to the records, &c. of every state.' To obviate all difficulties, the Constitution proceeds: 'And Congress may, by general laws, prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof.' This makes perfect the law upon this subject. New, no one can withhold from the judgment of a state Court unlimited credence, without violating the Constitution; no one can resist its operation, without becoming instantaneously impotent. All must give the judgment a helping hand, to the accomplishment of its ends; and those who will not, immediately lose all power over it, and hither it comes, to more impartial...

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    ...(a) Kansas did not violate the Full Faith and Credit Clause by applying its own statute of limitations. The holding of McElmoyle v. Cohen, 13 Pet. 312, 10 L.Ed. 177, that statutes of limitation may be treated as procedural and therefore governed by the forum State's law for choice-of-law pu......
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