Article 3, Section 2, Clause 1

Document 50

Bank of the United States v. Deveaux

5 Cranch 61 1809

March 15. Marshall, Ch. J., delivered the opinion of the court as follows:

Two points have been made in this cause.

1. That a corporation, composed of citizens of one state, may sue a citizen of another state, in the federal courts.

2. That a right to sue in those courts is conferred on this bank by the law which incorporates it.

The last point will be first considered.

The judicial power of the United States, as defined in the constitution, is dependent, 1st. On the nature of the case; and, 2d. On the character of the parties.

By the judicial act, the jurisdiction of the circuit courts is extended to cases where the constitutional right to plead and be impleaded, in the courts of the Union, depends on the character of the parties; but where that right depends on the nature of the case, the circuit courts derive no jurisdiction from that act, except in the single case of a controversy between citizens of the same state, claiming lands under grants from different states.

Unless, then, jurisdiction over this cause has been given to the Circuit Court by some other than the judicial act, the bank of the United States had not a right to sue in that court, upon the principle that the case arises under a law of the United States.

The plaintiffs contend that the incorporating act confers this jurisdiction.

That act creates the corporation, gives it a capacity to make contracts and to acquire property, and enables it "to sue and be sued, plead and be impleaded, answer and be answered, defend and be defended, in courts of record, or any other place whatsoever."

This power, if not incident to a corporation, is conferred by every incorporating act, and is not understood to enlarge the jurisdiction of any particular court, but to give a capacity to the corporation to appear, as a corporation, in any court which would, by law, have cognizance of the cause, if brought by individuals. If jurisdiction is given by this clause to the federal courts, it is equally given to all courts having original jurisdiction, and for all sums however small they may be.

But the 9th article of the 7th section of the act furnishes a conclusive argument against the construction for which the plaintiffs contend. That section subjects the president and directors, in their individual capacity, to the suit of any person aggrieved by their putting into circulation more notes than is permitted by law, and expressly authorizes the bringing of that action in the federal or state courts.

This evinces the opinion of Congress, that the right to sue does not imply a right to sue in the courts of the Union unless it be expressed. This idea is strengthened also by the law respecting patent rights. That law expressly recognizes the right of the patentee to sue in the circuit courts of the United States.

The court, then, is of opinion, that no right is conferred on the bank, by the act of incorporation, to sue in the federal courts.

2. The other point is one of much more difficulty.

The jurisdiction of this court being limited, so far as respects the character of the parties in this particular case, "to controversies between citizens of different states," both parties must be citizens, to come within the description.

That invisible, intangible, and artificial being, that mere legal entity, a corporation aggregate, is certainly not a citizen; and, consequently, cannot sue or be sued in the courts of the United States, unless the rights of the members, in this respect, can be exercised in their corporate name. If the corporation be considered as a mere faculty, and not as a company of individuals, who, in transacting their joint concerns, may use a legal name, they must be excluded from the courts of the Union.

The duties of this court, to exercise jurisdiction where it is conferred, and not to usurp it where it is not conferred, are of equal obligation. The constitution, therefore, and the law are to be expounded, without a leaning the one way or the other, according to those general principles which usually govern in the construction of fundamental or other laws.

A constitution, from its nature, deals in generals, not in detail. Its framers cannot perceive minute distinctions which arise in the progress of the nation, and therefore confine it to the establishment of broad and general principles.

The judicial department was introduced into the American constitution under impressions, and with views, which are too apparent not to be perceived by all. However true the fact may be, that the tribunals of the states will administer justice as impartially as those of the nation, to parties of every description, it is not less true that the constitution itself either entertains apprehensions on this subject, or views with such indulgence the possible fears and apprehensions of suitors, that it has established national tribunals for the decision of controversies between aliens and a citizen, or between citizens of different states. Aliens, or citizens of different states, are not less susceptible of these apprehensions, nor can they be supposed to be less the objects of constitutional provision, because they are allowed to sue by a corporate name. That name, indeed, cannot be an alien or a citizen; but the persons whom it represents may be the one or the other; and the controversy is, in fact and in law, between those persons suing in their corporate character, by their corporate name, for a corporate right, and the individual against whom the suit may be instituted. Substantially and essentially, the parties in such a case, where the members of the corporation are aliens, or citizens of a different state from the opposite party, come within the spirit and terms of the jurisdiction conferred by the constitution on the national tribunals.

Such has been the universal understanding on the subject. Repeatedly has this court decided causes between a corporation and an individual without feeling a doubt respecting its jurisdiction. Those decisions are not cited as authority; for they were made without considering this particular point; but they have much weight, as they show that this point neither occurred to the bar or the bench; and that the common understanding of intelligent men is in favor of the right of incorporated aliens, or citizens of a different state from the defendant, to sue in the national courts. It is by a course of acute, metaphysical and abstruse reasoning, which has been most ably employed on this occasion, that this opinion is shaken.

As our ideas of a corporation, its privileges and its disabilities, are derived entirely from the English books, we resort to them for aid, in ascertaining its character. It is defined as a mere creature of the law, invisible, intangible and incorporeal. Yet, when we examine the subject further, we find that corporations have been included within terms of description appropriated to real persons.

The statute of Henry VIII. concerning bridges and highways, enacts, that bridges and highways shall be made and repaired by the "inhabitants of the city, shire, or riding," and that the justices shall have power to tax every "inhabitant of such city," &c., and that the collectors may "distrain every such inhabitant as shall be taxed and refuse payment thereof, in his lands, goods and chattels."

Under this statute those have been construed inhabitants who hold lands within the city where the bridge to be repaired lies, although they reside elsewhere.

Lord Coke says, "every corporation and body politic residing in any county, riding, city, or town corporate, or having lands or tenements in any shire, que propriis manibus et sumptibus possident et habent, are said to be inhabitants there, within the purview of this statute."

The tax is not imposed on the person, whether he be a member of the corporation or not, who may happen to reside on the lands; but is imposed on the corporation itself, and, consequently, this ideal existence is considered as an inhabitant, when the general spirit and purpose of the law requires it.

In the case of the King v. Gardner, reported by Cowper, a corporation was decided, by the Court of King's bench, to come within the description of "occupiers or inhabitants." In that case the poor rates to which the lands of the corporation were declared to be liable, were not assessed to the actual occupant, for there was none, but to the corporation. And the principle established by the case appears to be, that the poor rates on vacant ground belonging to a corporation, may be assessed to the corporation, as being inhabitants or occupiers of that ground. In this case Lord Mansfield notices and overrules an inconsiderate dictum of Justice Yates, that a corporation could not be an inhabitant or occupier.

These opinions are not precisely in point; but they serve to show that, for the general purposes and objects of a law, this invisible, incorporeal creature of the law may be considered as having corporeal qualities.

It is true that as far as these cases go they serve to show that the corporation itself, in its incorporeal character, may be considered as an inhabitant or an occupier; and the argument from them would be more strong in favor of considering the corporation itself as endowed for this special purpose with the character of a citizen, than to consider the character of the individiuals who compose it as a subject which the court can inspect, when they use the name of the corporation, for the purpose of asserting their corporate rights. Still the cases show that this technical definition of a corporation does not uniformly circumscribe its capacities, but that courts for legitimate purposes will contemplate it more substantially.

There is a case, however, reported in 12 Mod. which is thought precisely in point. The corporation of London brought a suit against Wood, by their corporate name, in the Mayor's Court. The suit was brought by the mayor and commonalty, and was tried before the mayor and aldermen. The judgment rendered in this cause was brought before the Court of King's bench and reversed, because the court was deprived of its jurisdiction by the character of the individuals who were members of the corporation.

In that case the objection, that a corporation was an invisible, intangible thing, a mere incorporeal legal entity, in which the characters of the individuals who composed it were completely merged, was urged and was considered. The judges unanimously declared that they could look beyond the corporate name, and notice the character of the individual. In the opinions, which were delivered seriatim, several cases are put which serve to illustrate the principle and fortify the decision.

The case of The Mayor and Commonalty v. Wood, is the stronger because it is on the point of jurisdiction. It appears to the court to be a full authority for the case now under consideration. It seems not possible to distinguish them from each other.

If, then, the Congress of the United States had, in terms, enacted that incorporated aliens might sue a citizen, or that the incorporated citizens of one state might sue a citizen of another state, in the federal courts, by its corporate name, this court would not have felt itself justified in declaring that such a law transcended the constitution.

The controversy is substantially between aliens, suing by a corporate name, and a citizen, or between citizens of one state, suing by a corporate name, and those of another state. When these are said to be substantially the parties to the controversy, the court does not mean to liken it to the case of a trustee. A trustee is a real person capable of being a citizen or an alien, who has the whole legal estate in himself. At law, he is the real proprietor, and he represents himself, and sues in his own right. But in this case the corporate name represents persons who are members of the corporation.

If the constitution would authorize Congress to give the courts of the Union jurisdiction in this case, in consequence of the character of the members of the corporation, then the judicial act ought to be construed to give it. For the term citizen ought to be understood as it is used in the constitution, and as it is used in other laws. That is, to describe the real persons who come into court, in this case, under their corporate name.

That corporations composed of citizens are considered by the legislature as citizens, under certain circumstances, is to be strongly inferred from the registering act. It never could be intended that an American registered vessel, abandoned to an insurance company composed of citizens, should lose her character as an American vessel; and yet this would be the consequence of declaring that the members of the corporation were, to every intent and purpose, out of view, and merged in the corporation.

The court feels itself authorized by the case in 12 Mod., on a question of jurisdiction, to look to the character of the individuals who compose the corporation, and they think that the precedents of this court, though they were not decisions on argument, ought not to be absolutely disregarded.

If a corporation may sue in the courts of the Union, the court is of opinion that the averment in this case is sufficient.

Being authorized to sue in their corporate name, they could make the averment, and it must apply to the plaintiffs as individuals, because it could not be true as applied to the corporation.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 3, Section 2, Clause 1, Document 50
The University of Chicago Press

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