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Article 3, Section 1

Document 37

Livingston v. Moore

7 Pet. 469 1833

Johnson, J.: . . . The objection made to the exercise of this power is, that it is one of a judicial character, and could not exist in the legislature of a country having a constitution which distributes the powers of government into legislative, executive and judicial.

I will not pause to examine the question, whether the subjection of property to the payment of judgments, be in fact a matter appertaining essentially to judicial power; or whether, after deciding that the debt is due, the judgment action does not cease, and all that follows is the exercise of legislative or executive power; another view of the subject will, in my opinion, dispose of this question.

The power existing in every body politic is an absolute despotism: in constituting a government, the body politic distributes that power as it pleases, and in the quantity it pleases, and imposes what checks it pleases upon its public functionaries. The natural distribution and the necessary distribution to individual security, is into legislative, executive and judicial; but it is obvious that every community may make a perfect or imperfect separation and distribution of these powers at its will. It has pleased Pennsylvania, in her constitution, to make what most jurists would pronounce an imperfect separation of those powers; she has not thought it necessary to make any imperative provision for incorporating the equity jurisdiction in its full latitude into her jurisprudence: and the consequence is, as it ever will be, that so far as her common law courts are incapable of assuming and exercising that branch of jurisdiction, her legislature must often be called upon to pass laws which bear a close affinity to decrees in equity. Of that character are the acts of 1806 and 1807 under consideration. The relations in which the state and John Nicholson's estate stood to each other, presented a clear case for equitable relief; a lien on the one hand, and property to satisfy it on the other, but no common law means of obtaining a sale. Thus circumstanced, is there any thing in the constitution of Pennsylvania to prevent the passing of these laws?

When it is intimated that the separation of the primary powers of government is incomplete under the constitution of Pennsylvania, it may be necessary to submit a few observations explanatory of the idea.

It is true that the separation of common law from equity jurisdiction is peculiar to Great Britian; no other of the states of the old world having adopted it. But it is equally true that in no other of the states of the old world did the trial by jury constitute a part of their jurisprudence, and every practical lawyer knows that to give jurisdiction to a court of equity, or to distinguish a case of equity jurisdiction from one of common law under the British practice, the averment is indispensable that the complainant is remediless at law. When it is said that the separation of common law from equity jurisdiction is peculiar to Great Britain; it must only be understood, that it is there exercised by distinct courts and under distinct forms. For, as an essential branch or exercise of judicial power, it is acknowledged to exist every where: nor is it possible for any one acquainted with its nature and character, and the remedies it affords for the assertion of rights or the punishment of wrongs, to doubt that the power to exercise it, and the means of exercising it, must exist somewhere; or the administration of justice will be embarrassed if not incomplete. To administer it through the ordinary powers or a common law court is impracticable; and hence, wherever there exists no provision in the jurisprudence of a country for its full exercise; the consequence must ever be, that after the common law courts have ingrafted into their practice as much as can be there assumed, the legislature is compelled to exercise the rest; or else leave a large space for the appropriate field of judicial action unoccupied.

A specimen of this will be found in the early legislation of the state of South Carolina, in which, before the establishment of a court of equity, laws are frequently found authorizing administrators or others to sell lands for the payment of debts, and for similar purposes. And it has been admitted in argument, that similar laws are of frequent occurrence in Pennsylvania.

The provisions of the constitution of that state, on the subject of legislative and judicial power, are as follows. Art. 1, sect. 1. "The legislative power of this commonwealth shall be vested in a general assembly, which shall consist of a senate and house of representatives.

Art. 4, sect. 1. "The judicial power of the commonwealth shall be vested in a supreme court, in courts of oyer and terminer and general jail delivery, in a court of common pleas, orphans' court, register's court, and a court of quarter sessions of the peace of each county, in justices of the peace, and in such other courts as the legislature may from time to time establish."

Art. 4, sect. 6. "The supreme court and the several courts of common pleas, shall, besides the powers heretofore usually exercised by them, have the powers of a court of chancery so far as relates to the perpetuating of testimony, the obtaining of evidence from places not within the state, and the care of the persons and estates of those who are non compos mentis; and the legislature shall vest in the said courts such other powers to grant relief in equity as shall be necessary, and may from time to time enlarge or diminish those powers, or vest them in such other courts as they may judge proper for the due administration of justice."

It is clear from these quotations, that the legislature possess all the legislative power that the body politic could confer, except so far as they are restricted by the instrument itself. It is equally clear that the constitution recognizes the distinction between common law and equity powers, and the existence of equity powers beyond what it has vested in the supreme court. But what provision has it made for the exercise of those powers? No other than this, that the legislature shall vest in the said courts such other powers to grant relief in equity as shall be found necessary. But where is the limitation prescribed to the legislature in judging of the necessity of vesting such powers? They have not thought it necessary to invest their courts with such powers: and if the reason which influenced them in judging it unnecessary was, that they held themselves competent to afford the necessary relief by the exercise of legislative power; where is the restriction in the constitution that controls them in thus extending or applying the powers with which they hold themselves to be constitutionally vested? They are sought in vain.

Again, "they may from time to time enlarge or diminish those powers, or vest them in such other courts as they shall judge proper, for the due administration of justice." Now they have, by the first section of the same article, the power to establish what courts they please; and suppose they thought proper to have vested the whole equity jurisdiction not specifically disposed of, in a board of commissioners, instead of vesting specific powers in such a board, where is the constitutional provision that inhibits such an act of legislation?

The plaintiffs contend that it is to be found in the bill of rights of that state or in the constitution of the United States.

Both those constitutions contain the provision against the violation of contracts; and the plaintiffs' counsel insists that there were three contracts in existence between the state of Pennsylvania and John Nicholson, two of them express, and one implied.

The first express contract he finds in the acts of 1782 and 1785; which, in giving the lien upon public accounts, declare that they shall be liens "in the same manner as if judgment had been given in the supreme court." This he construes into a contract that they shall be enforced in the same manner as such a judgment, to wit by judicial process; and then finds the violation of the contract, in the acts which provide for the raising of the money to satisfy those liens by the sale of the land, through this board of commissioners. But a single observation we think disposes of this exception; which is, that the lien of a judgment, of a mortgage, or any other lien, is a very different idea from that of the means by which the lien is to be enforced; the one is the right, the other is the remedy; the one constitutes the contract, and the other the remedy afforded by the policy of the country, where it is not provided by the terms of the contract, for enforcing or effecting the execution of it. The first is unchangeable, without a violation of right; the other may be subject to change at the will of the government. And it may be further observed in the present instance, that the reference to a judgment in the supreme court, is clearly descriptive or illustrative of the meaning of the legislature, with reference only to the binding efficacy of the lien given on these public accounts.

The second express contract is found by the plaintiffs in the confession of judgment on the 21st March, 1797; and the violation of this, also, is not enforcing it by judicial process.

This is obviously an attempt to give the character of a contract to that which is nothing more than an obligation, or duty, or necessity imposed by the laws of society. The confession of a judgment does indeed create a contract; but it is only on the side of the defendant, who thus acknowledges or assumes upon himself a debt, which may be made the ground of an action. But on the side of the plaintiff, the necessity of resorting to certain means of enforcing that judgment, is not an obligation arising out of contract, but one imposed upon him by the laws of the country.

Again, it may be answered, if there was in fact such a contract imputable to the state, the performance had become impossible by the act of God, and of the party himself, by his death; and by that confusion of his affairs, which prevented every one from assuming the character of his personal representative.

We proceed to the third, or the implied contract; that which is deduced from the original grant of the land to John Nicholson. This sale, it is insisted, is inconsistent with that contract of grant; that it amounts in fact to a resumption of the land: and in connexion with this, the point of inconsistency with the reason and nature of things was argued and commented upon.

The answer which the case here furnishes we think is this: that subjecting the lands of a grantee to the payment of his debts, can never impair or contravene the rights derived to him under his grant, for in the very act, the full effect of the transfer of interest to him is recognized and asserted: because it is his, is the direct and only reason for subjecting it to his debts.

But it is asserted that in this case the community sits in judgment in its own cause, when it affirms the debt to be due for which the land is subjected to sale, and then subjects the land to sale to satisfy its own decision thus rendered.

This view of the acts of the state is clearly not to be sustained by a reference to the facts of the case. As to the judgment of 1797, that is unquestionably a judicial act; and as to the settled accounts, the lien is there created by the act of men who, quoad hoc, were acting in a judicial character; and their decision being subjected to an appeal to the ordinary, or rather the highest of the tribunals of the country, gives to those settlements a decided judicial character: and were it otherwise, how else are the interests of the state to be protected? The body politic has its claims upon the constituted authorities, as well as individuals; and if the plaintiffs' course of reasoning could be permitted to prevail, it would then follow, that provision might be made for collecting the debts of every one else, but those of the state must go unpaid, whenever legislative aid became necessary to both. This would be pushing the reason and nature of things beyond the limits of natural justice.

It is next contended, that the acts of 1806 and 1807 are unconstitutional and void, because contrary to the ninth section of the Pennsylvania bill of rights, which provides, in the words of magna charta, that no one shall be deprived of his property but by the laws of the land.

This exception has already been disposed of by the view that has been taken of the nature and character of those laws. It has been shown that there is nothing in this provision either inconsistent with natural justice or the constitution of the state: there is nothing of an arbitrary character in them.

They are also charged with being contrary to the ninth article of the amendments of the constitution of the United States, and the sixth section of the Pennsylvania bill of rights, securing the trial by jury.

As to the amendments of the constitution of the United States, they must be put out of the case; since it is now settled that those amendments do not extend to the states: and this observation disposes of the next exception, which relies on the seventh article of those amendments. As to the sixth section of the Pennsylvania bill of rights, we can see nothing in these laws on which to fasten the imputation of a violation of the right of trial by jury; since, in creating the lien attached to the settled accounts, the right of an appeal to a jury is secured to the debtor: and as to the inquest given under the execution law, with a view to ascertaining if the rents and profits can discharge the debt in a limited time, as a prelude to the right of selling; we are well satisfied that there is no more reason for extending the provision of the amendment to that inquest, than there would be to the inquest of a coroner, or any other mere inquest of office. The word trial, used in the sixth section, clearly points to a different object; and the distinction between trial by jury and inquest of office, is so familiar to every mind, as to leave no sufficient ground for extending to the latter that inviolability which could have been intended only for the former. The one appertains to a mere remedy for the recovery of money, which may be altered at any time without any danger to private security; the other is justly regarded in every state in the union, as among the most inestimable privileges of a freeman.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 3, Section 1, Document 37
The University of Chicago Press

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