William Parsons, Plaintiff In Error v. Bedford, Breedlove and Robeson, Defendants

Decision Date01 January 1830
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the eastern district of Louisiana.

This suit was originally brought in the parish court of New Orleans by the defendants in error, by a petition for an attachment against the property of the defendant in the suit; and was removed into the district court of the United States for the eastern district of Louisiana, the defendant being a citizen of the state of Massachusetts.

The object of the suit was the recovery of the amount of certain sales of tobacco, made by the plaintiffs to a certain Eben Fiske, represented in the petition to be the agent and factor of the defendant; and for which he drew bills of exchange on the defendant, and which bills were refused acceptance and payment. After an answer had been filed, the case was submitted to a special jury, and a verdict was rendered for the plaintiffs for $6414.

The proceedings in the case were instituted and conducted according to the laws of Louisiana, which conform in a great degree to the principles and practice of the civil law.

On the trial, the plaintiffs produced the bills of exchange mentioned in the petition, and many letters written by the defendant to Fiske. The defendant introduced, as testimony, other letters written as above; and also the record of a suit brought by the plaintiffs against Fiske, on the same bills, in which they charge, on oath, that the sale was made to Fiske, and that he was their debtor; all which written testimony was, according to the practice of the state courts, filed in court, and forms part of the record.

The plaintiffs also produced Fiske as a witness, to prove that he acted only as agent for the defendant, and to make him a witness, gave a full release of all claims on him. He was objected to; but the court overruled the objection, and a bill of exceptions was tendered and signed.

By the twelfth section of an act of the general assembly of Louisiana, passed the 20th of July 1817, entitled an act 'to amend the several acts passed to organize the court of the state, and for other purposes,' it is among other things enacted, 'that when any cause shall be submitted to a jury to be tried, the verbal evidence shall, in all cases where an appeal lies to the supreme court, if either party require it, and at the time when the witnesses shall be examined, be taken down in writing by the clerk of the court, in order to be sent up to the supreme court, to serve as a statement of facts in case of appeal; and the written evidence produced by both parties shall be filed with the proceedings.'

By a law of the United States, passed the 26th of May 1824, the mode of practice pursued in the state courts is directed to be followed in the courts of the United States in Louisiana.

Under the provisions of these laws, the defendant applied to the court to direct the clerk to take down the verbal proof offered in the cause, or to suffer his counsel, the counsel of the plaintiffs, or the witnesses, to take it down; which the judge refused to do: whereupon a bill of exceptions was tendered and signed.

A motion was made for a new trial, which was overruled; and a judgment was entered for the amount of the verdict. This writ of error was then prosecuted.

The plaintiff in error contended:

1. That from the facts apparent on the record, the plaintiffs had no right of action against the defendant, and that therefore this court will decree a judgment to be entered in favour of the defendant.

2. The court will, at least, reverse this judgment, and award a new trial, for one or all of the following reasons:

1. Because the court refused the evidence to be put upon the record.

2. Because the whole question was a question of law, and the decision was against law.

3. It is not, strictly, a common law proceeding, but a proceeding under the peculiar system of Louisiana; and, according to that system, the court has power to reverse the judgment, under circumstances which would not given it that power when the trial had been according to the common law.

The case was argued by Mr Livingston and Mr Webster for the plaintiff in error, and by Mr Jones for the defendants.

Mr Livingston and Mr Webster, for the plaintiff in error.

The law of Louisiana, of July 1817, directs that in all jury trials, the verbal evidence shall be reduced to writing, and put on record. The law of congress of the 6th of May 1824, directs that the practice in the courts of the United States, in the state of Louisiana, shall be according to the rules of practice in the state courts. Before the law of the United States of 1803, all causes came up to this court by writ of error. Under the authority of this law, cases of admiralty and of equity jurisdiction came up by appeal, and all cases not embraced by the provisions of the law, are yet brought up by writ of error.

The constitution of the United States says, 'all controversies' between citizens of different states may come to this court; and by the provisions of the law of 1789, the removal of such cases is to take place when the matter in dispute amounts to two thousand dollars. That law requires a statement of the evidence in appeals, and in matters of admiralty jurisdiction. It cannot be supposed that there was any intention to exclude cases such as the present from the jurisdiction of this court. It has been the practice for twenty years, ever since the organization of the courts of the United States in the state of Louisiana, to bring cases up from that district.

The proceedings in the courts of Louisiana are by petition and answer. To introduce the practice of the common law into any of the courts established in that state, would be against the feelings and wishes of the whole people of the state. The judges of the courts of the United States have adopted the practice of the courts of the state. The position of any one who should come from a state where the common law is not known, as from Louisiana, and who should be required to argue a cause on the common law alone, in this court, would be extraordinary.

The twenty-second section of the judiciary law of 1789 says, the supreme court shall not reverse a judgment for error in fact. But it is claimed, that the seventh amendment of the constitution of the United States, which declares that 'no fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law,' was not intended to take away a remedy which was secured by a law of the state of Louisiana; and which law is in force in the courts of the United States, under the provisions of the act of congress of 1824.

This case cannot come within the amendment. It is a case not comprehended by it, nor can it have any application to it. The amendment was adopted when all the proceedings in the courts of the United States, and in the courts of the different states, were under the common law; and the plaintiff in this case has a complete remedy, independent of the amendment. It was intended to guard the rights of citizens, proceeding according to the common law; and it only provides that the decisions of juries shall not be set aside except according to the common law. How can it apply or operate in a state where there is no common law, where the forms of proceeding under the common law are not known or permitted? Where terms are used which embrace the case, and justice requires it, the law must be construed to embrace it. A constitutional law of the United States gives the relief the plaintiff asks in this case: the amendment of the constitution referred to does not take it away.

There is a rule of the common law, the effect of which gives the same remedy as to parties as that which is required here; and in this case the equivalent remedy would have been furnished, had the court directed the clerk to take down in writing the testimony given in this cause. By the common law practice, all evidence may be stated under a bill of exceptions, or the judge may be called upon to charge on the law and facts; the facts being stated from which the law is supposed to arise. The proceedings in the courts of Louisiana are substituted for these common law proceedings. They should have the same estimate, and be treated in the higher court in the same manner as a bill of exceptions. It is admitted that in the court below the case must proceed according to the state laws: those laws say, the evidence shall be put in writing by the clerk. The refusal to permit the clerk to do this was certainly error.

If the laws of the state are not to be the guide, we had better have no right of appeal from the courts of Louisiana to this court. If those laws do not furnish rules of proceeding, we have no appeals in cases where appeals may come from other states. Because, in the courts of Louisiana there is no distinction between common law and equity; and there cannot be one rule in a state court, and another in a federal court. The principle that no relief shall be given in equity where there is a plain remedy at law, would interfere materially with proceedings in the courts of Louisiana. In every possible case relief is given by a court of law in Louisiana; and the distinction between law and equity is not there known. To insist on the establishment of the distinction in the courts of the United States there, would be productive of grievous injury. It would give a foreigner one rule of practice and a citizen another. If the forms of the common law must be pursued to secure writs of error and appeals from the courts of the United States in Louisiana to this court, all the system of practice now prevailing in those courts, under the authority of the law of 1824, must be changed. The forms of the common law, the distinctions between proceedings at law and in equity, must be established there. This will be productive of great inconvenience,...

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