Article 4, Section 1

Document 12

McCormick v. Sullivant

10 Wheat. 192 1825

March 16th, 1825. Washington, Justice, delivered the opinion of the court, and after stating the case, proceeded as follows:--The question which the plea of Thompson's heirs, and the answer of Winship's heirs, presents, is, whether the general decree of dismissal of the bill in equity, filed by the present plaintiffs in the federal district court of Ohio, against the ancestor of these defendants, under whom they respectively claim title, is a bar of the remedy which is sought to be enforced by the present suit? The reason assigned by the replication, why that decree cannot operate as a bar, is, that the proceedings in that suit do not show that the parties to it, plaintiffs and defendants, were citizens of different states, and that, consequently, the suit was coram non judice, and the decree void.

But this reason proceeds upon an incorrect view of the character and jurisdiction of the inferior courts of the United States. They are all of limited jurisdiction; but they are not, on that account, inferior courts, in the technical sense of those words, whose judgments, taken alone, are to be disregarded. If the jurisdiction be not alleged in the proceedings, their judgments and decrees are erroneous, and may, upon a writ of error or appeal, be reversed for that cause. But they are not absolute nullities. This opinion was strongly intimated, if not decided, by this court, in the case of Kempe's Lessee v. Kennedy (5 Cranch 185), and was, afterwards, confirmed by the decision made in the case of Skillern's Executors v. May's Executors (6 Ibid. 267). That suit came before this court upon a writ of error, where the decree of the court below was reversed, and the cause remanded for further proceedings to be had therein. After this, it was discovered by that court, that the jurisdiction was not stated in the proceedings, and the question was made, whether that court could dismiss the suit for that reason? This point, on which the judges were divided, was certified to the supreme court, where it was decided, that the merits of the cause having been finally decided in this court, and its mandate only requiring the execution of its decree, the court below was bound to carry that decree into execution, notwithstanding the jurisdiction of that court was not alleged in the pleadings. Now, it is very clear, that, if the decree had been considered as a nullity, on the ground that jurisdiction was not stated in the proceedings, this court could not have required it to be executed by the inferior court. We are, therefore, of opinion, that the decree of dismissal relied upon in this case, whilst it remains unreversed, is a valid bar of the present suit, as to the above defendants.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 4, Section 1, Document 12
The University of Chicago Press

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