Green v. Biddle
21 U.S. 1

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U.S. Supreme Court

Green v. Biddle, 21 U.S. 8 Wheat. 1 1 (1823)

Green v. Biddle

21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 1

Syllabus

The Act of the State of Kentucky of 27 February, 1797, concerning occupying claimants of land, whilst it was in force, was repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, but it was repealed by a subsequent Act of 31 January, 1812, to amend the said act, and the last mentioned act is also repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, as being in violation of the compact between the States of Virginia and Kentucky contained in the Act of the Legislature of Virginia of 18 December, 1789, and incorporated into the Constitution of Kentucky.

By the common law, the statute law of Virginia, the principles of equity, and the civil law, the claimant of lands who succeeds in his suit is entitled to an account of mesne profits, received by the occupant from some period prior to the judgment of eviction or decree.

At common law, whoever takes and holds possession of land to which another has a better title, whether he be a bonae fidei or a malae fidei possessor, is liable to the true owner for all the rents and profits which he has received, but the disseizor, if he be a bonae fidea occupant, may recoup the value of the meliorations made by him against the claim of damages.

Equity allows an account of rents and profits in all cases from the time of the title accrued (provided it does not exceed six years), unless under special circumstances, as where the defendant had no notice of the plaintiff's title, nor had the deeds in which the plaintiff's title appeared in his custody, or where there has been laches in the plaintiff in not asserting his title, or where his title appeared by deeds in a stranger's custody, in all which, and other similar cases, the account is confined to the time of filing the bill.

By the civil law, the exemption of the occupant from an account for rents and profits is strictly confined to the case of a bonae fidei possessor, who not only supposes himself to be the true owner of the land, but who is ignorant that his title is contested by some other person claiming a better right. And such a possessor is entitled only to the fruits or profits which were produced by his own industry, and not even to those unless they were consumed.

Distinctions between these rules of the civil and common law and of the court of chancery and the provisions of the acts of Kentucky concerning occupying claimants of land.

The invalidity of a state law as impairing the obligation of contracts does not depend upon the extent of the change which the law effects in the contract.

Any deviation from its terms by postponing or accelerating the period of its performance, imposing conditions not expressed in the contract, or dispensing with the performance of those which are expressed, however minute or apparently immaterial in their effect upon the contract, impairs its obligation.

The compact of 1789 between Virginia and Kentucky was valid under that provision of the Constitution which declares that "no state shall, without the consent of Congress, enter into any agreement or compact with another state, or with a foreign power" -- no particular mode in which that consent must be given, having been prescribed by the Constitution, and Congress having consented to the admission of Kentucky into the union as a sovereign state upon the conditions mentioned in the compact.

The compact is not invalid upon the ground of its surrendering rights of sovereignty, which are unalienable.

This Court has authority to declare a state law unconstitutional upon the ground of its impairing the obligation of a compact between different states of the union.

The prohibition of the Constitution embraces all contracts, executed or executory, between private individuals, or a state and individuals or corporations, or between the states themselves.

Page 21 U. S. 3

This was a writ of right, brought in the Circuit Court of Kentucky by the demandants, Green and others, who were the heirs of John Green, deceased, against the tenant, Richard Biddle, to recover certain lands in the State of Kentucky in his possession. The cause was brought before this Court upon a division of opinion of the judges of the court below, on the following questions:

1. Whether the acts of the Legislature of the State of Kentucky, of 27 February, 1797, and of 31 January, 1812, concerning occupying claimants of land are constitutional or not, the demandants and the tenant both claiming title to the land in controversy under patents from the State of Virginia prior to the erection of the district of Kentucky into a state.

2. Whether the question of improvements ought to be settled under the above act of 1797, the suit having been brought before the passage of the act of 1812, although judgment for the demandant was not rendered until after the passage of the last mentioned act?

The ground upon which the unconstitutionality of the above acts was asserted was that they impaired the obligation of the compact between the states of Virginia and Kentucky contained in an act of the legislature of the former state, passed 18 December, 1789, which declares

"That all private rights and interests of lands within the said district [of Kentucky] derived from the laws of Virginia prior to such separation shall remain valid and secure under the laws of the proposed state, and shall be determined by the laws now existing in this state."

This compact was

Page 21 U. S. 4

ratified by the convention which framed the Constitution of Kentucky and incorporated into that Constitution as one of its fundamental articles.

The most material provisions in the act of 1797, which were supposed to impair the obligation of the compact of 1789 and therefore void, are the following:

1. It provides that the occupant of land from which he is evicted by better title shall in all cases, be excused from the payment of rents and profits accrued prior to actual notice of the adverse title, provided his possession in its inception was peaceable and he shows a plain and connected title in law or equity deduced from some record.

2. That the successful claimant is liable to a judgment against him for all valuable and lasting improvements made on the land prior to actual notice of the adverse title, after deducting from the amount the damages which the land has sustained by waste or deterioration of the soil by cultivation.

3. As to improvements made and rents and profits accrued after notice of the adverse title, the amount of the one shall be deducted from that of the other, and the balance added to, or subtracted from, the estimated value of the improvements made before such notice, as the nature of the case may require. But it is provided by a subsequent clause that in no case shall the successful claimant be obliged to pay for improvements made after notice more than what is equal to the rents and profits.

4. If the improvements exceed the value of the

Page 21 U. S. 5

land in its unimproved state, the claimant shall be allowed the privilege of conveying the land to the occupant and receiving in return the assessed value of it without the improvements, and thus to protect himself against a judgment and execution for the value of the improvements. If he declines doing this, he shall recover possession of his land, but shall then pay the estimated value of the improvements and also lose the rents and profits accrued before notice of the claim. But to entitle him to claim the value of the land as above mentioned, he must give bond and security to warrant the title.

The act of 1812 contains the following provisions:

1. That the peaceable occupant of land who supposes it to belong to him in virtue of some legal or equitable title, founded on a record shall be paid by the successful claimant for his improvements.

2. That the claimant may avoid the payment of the value of such improvements, at his election, by relinquishing the land to the occupant and be paid its estimated value in its unimproved state.

Thus, if the claimant elect to pay for the value of the improvements, he is to give bond and security to pay the same with interest at different installments. If he fail to do this or if the value of the improvements exceeds three-fourths of the unimproved land, an election is given to the occupant to have a judgment entered against the claimant for the assessed value of the improvements or to take the land, giving bond and security to

Page 21 U. S. 6

pay the value of the land, if unimproved, by installments with interest.

But if the claimant is not willing to pay for the improvements, and they should exceed three-fourths of the value of the unimproved land, the occupant is obliged to give bond and security to pay the assessed value of the land, with interest, which if he fail to do, judgment is to be entered against him for such value, the claimant releasing his right to the land and giving bond and security to warrant the title.

If the value of the improvements does not exceed three-fourths of the value of the unimproved land, then the occupant is not bound (as he is in the former case) to give bond and security to pay the value of the land, but he may claim a judgment for the value of his improvements or take the land, giving bond and security, as before mentioned, to pay the estimated value of the land.

3. The exemption of the occupant from the payment of the rents and profits extends to all such as accrued during his occupancy, before judgment rendered against him in the first instance, but such as accrue after such judgment, for a term not exceeding five years, as also waste and damage, committed by the occupant after suit brought, are to be deducted from the value of the improvements, or the court may render judgment for them against the occupant.

4. The amount of such rents and profits, damages and waste, and also the value of the improvements, and of the land without the improvements,

Page 21 U. S. 7

are to be ascertained by commissioners, to be appointed by the court, and who act under oath.

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