Windsor v. McVeigh

Citation23 L.Ed. 914,93 U.S. 274
Decision Date01 October 1876
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

ERROR to the Corporation Court of the city of Alexandria, Va.

Ejectment for a tract of land situate in the city of Alexandria, Va. Finding and judgment for the plaintiff. The defendant sued out this writ of error. The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.

Argued by Mr. S. F. Beach, for the plaintiff in error, and by Mr. Philip Phillips and Mr. John Howard, contra.

MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.

This was an action of ejectment to recover certain real property in the city of Alexandria, in the State of Virginia. It was brought in the corporation court of that city, and a writ of error from the court of appeals of the State to review the judgment obtained having been refused, the case was brought here directly by a writ of error from this court. Authority for this mode of procedure will be found stated in the case of Gregory v. McVeigh, reported in the 23d of Wallace.

The plaintiff in the corporation court proved title in himself to the premises in controversy, and consequent right to their immediate possession, unless his life-estate in them had been divested by a sale under a decree of condemnation rendered in March, 1864, by the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Virginia, upon proceedings for their confiscation. The defendant relied upon the deed to his grantor executed by the marshal of the district upon such sale.

The proceedings mentioned were instituted under the act of Congress of July 17, 1862, 'to suppress insurrection, to punish treason and rebellion, to seize and confiscate the property of rebels, and for other purposes.'

In July, 1863, the premises in controversy were seized by the marshal of the district, by order of the district-attorney, acting under instructions from the Attorney-General. In August following, a libel of information against the property was filed in the name of the United States, setting forth that the plaintiff in this case was the owner of the property in question; that he had, since the passage of the above act, held an office of honor and trust under the government of the so-called Confederate States, and in various ways had given aid and comfort to the rebellion; that the property had been seized in pursuance of the act in compliance with instructions from the Attorney-General, and, by reason of the premises, was forfeited to the United States, and should be condemned. It closed with a prayer that process of monition might issue against the owner or owners of the property and all persons interested or claiming an interest therein, warning them at some early day 'to appear and answer' the libel; and, as the owner of the property was a non-resident and absent, that an order of publication in the usual form be also made. Upon this libel the district judge ordered process of monition to issue as prayed, and designated a day and place for the trial of the cause, and that notice of the same, with the substance of the libel, should be given by publication in a newspaper of the city, and by posting at the door of the court-house. The process of monition and notice were accordingly issued and published. Both described the land and mentioned its seizure, and named the day and place fixed for the trial. The monition stated that at the trial all persons interested in the land, or claiming an interest, might 'appear and make their allegations in that behalf.' The notice warned all persons to appear at the trial, 'to show cause why condemnation should not be decreed, and to intervene for their interest.'

The owner of the property, in response to the monition and notice, appeared by counsel, and filed a claim to the property and an answer to the libel. Subsequently, on the 10th of March, 1864, the district-attorney moved that the claim and answer and the appearance of the respondent by counsel be stricken from the files, on the ground that it appeared from his answer that he was at the time of filing the same 'a resident within the city of Richmond, within the Confederate lines, and a rebel.' On the same day the motion was granted, and the claim and answer ordered to be stricken from the files. The appearance of the respondent was by his answer. The court immediately entered its sentence and decree, condemning the property as forfeited to the United States, reciting that, the usual proclamation having been made, the default of all persons had been duly entered. The decree ordered the issue of a venditioni exponas for the sale of the property, returnable on the sixteenth day of the following April. At the sale under this writ the grantor of the defendant became the purchaser.

The question for determination is, whether the decree of condemnation thus rendered, without allowing the owner of the property to appear in response to the monition, interpose his claim for the property, and answer the libel, was of any validity. In other words, the question is, whether the property of the plaintiff could be forfeited by the sentence of the court in a judicial proceeding to which he was not allowed to appear and make answer to the charges against him, upon the allegation of which the forfeiture was demanded.

There were several libels of information filed against the property of the plaintiff at the same time with the one here mentioned. They were identical in their allegations, except as to the property seized, and the same motion to strike from the files the appearance, claim, and answer of the respondent was made in each case, and on the same day, and similar orders were entered and like decrees of condemnation. One of these was brought here, and is reported in the 11th of Wallace. In delivering the unanimous opinion of this court, upon reversing the decree in the case, and referring to the order striking out the claim and answer, Mr. Justice Swayne said: 'The order in effect denied the respondent a hearing. It is alleged he was in the position of an alien enemy, and could have no locus standi in that forum. If assailed there, he could defend there. The liability and right are inseparable. A different result would be a blot upon our jurisprudence and civilization. We cannot hesitate or doubt on the subject. It would be contrary to the first principles of the social compact and of the right administration of justice.' 11 Wall. 267.

The principle stated in this terse language lies at the foundation of all well-ordered systems of jurisprudence. Wherever one is assailed in his person or his property, there he may defend, for the liability and the right are inseparable. This is a principle of natural justice, recognized as such by the common intelligence and conscience of all nations. A sentence of a court pronounced against a party without hearing him, or giving him an opportunity to be heard, is not a judicial determination of his rights, and is not entitled to respect in any other tribunal.

That there must be notice to a party of some kind, actual or constructive, to a valid judgment affecting his rights, is admitted. Until notice is given, the court has no jurisdiction in any case to proceed to judgment, whatever its authority may be, by the law of its organization, over the subject-matter. But notice is only for the purpose of affording the party an opportunity of being heard upon the claim or the charges made; it is a summons to him to appear and speak, if he has any thing to say, why the judgment sought should not be rendered. A denial to a party of the benefit of a notice would be in effect to deny that he is entitled to notice at all, and the sham and deceptive proceeding had better be omitted altogether. It would be like saying to a party, Appear, and you shall be heard; and, when he has appeared, saying, Your appearance shall not be recognized, and you shall not be heard. In the present case, the District Court not only in effect said this, but immediately added a decree of condemnation, reciting that the default of all persons had been duly entered. It is difficult to speak of a decree thus rendered with moderation; it was in fact a mere arbitrary edict, clothed in the form of a judicial sentence.

The law is, and always has been, that whenever notice or citation is required, the party cited has the right to appear and be heard; and when the latter is denied, the former is ineffectual for any purpose. The denial to a party in such a case of the right to appear is in legal effect the recall of the citation to him. The period within which the appearance must be made and the right to be heard exercised, is, of course, a matter of regulation, depending either upon positive law, or the rules or orders of the court, or the established practice in such cases. And if the appearance be not made, and the right to be heard be not exercised, within the period thus prescribed, the default of the party prosecuted, or possible claimants of the property, may, of course, be entered, and the allegations of the libel be taken as true for the purpose of the proceeding. But the denial of the right to appear and be heard at all is a different matter altogether.

The position of the defendant's counsel is, that, as the proceeding for the confiscation of the property was one in rem, the court, by seizure of the property, acquired jurisdiction to...

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    ...that they may enjoy that right they must first be notified." Baldwin v. Hale, (68 U.S.) 2 Wall. 223, 233, 17 L.Ed. 531. Windsor v. McVeigh, 93 U.S. 274, 23 L.Ed. 914; Hovey v. Elliott, 167 U.S. 409, 17 S.Ct. 841, 42 L.Ed. 215; Grannis v. Ordean, 234 U.S. 385, 34 S.Ct. 779, 58 L.Ed. 1363. It......
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