Cathcart v. Robinson
30 U.S. 264

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U.S. Supreme Court

Cathcart v. Robinson, 30 U.S. 5 Pet. 264 264 (1831)

Cathcart v. Robinson

0 U.S. (5 Pet.) 264

Syllabus

Excess of price over value, if the contract be free from imposition, is not of itself sufficient to prevent a decree for a specific performance. But though it will not, standing alone, prevent a court of chancery's enforcing a contract, it is an ingredient which, associated with others, will contribute to prevent the interference of a Court of equity.

The difference between that degree of unfairness which will induce a court of equity to interfere actively by setting aside a contract and that which will induce a court to withhold its aid is well settled. It is said that the plaintiff must come into court with clean hands, and that a defendant may resist a bill for specific performance by showing that under the circumstances, the plaintiff is not entitled to the relief he asks. Omission or mistake in the agreement, or that it is unconscientious or unreasonable, or that there has been concealment, misrepresentation, or any unfairness are enumerated among

the causes which will induce the court to refuse its aid. If to any unfairness a great inequality between the price and value be added, a court of chancery will not afford its aid.

The right of a vendor to come into a court of equity to enforce a specific performance is unquestionable. Such subjects are within the settled and common jurisdiction of the court. It is equally well settled that if the jurisdiction attaches, the court will go on to do complete justice, although in its progress it may decree on a matter which was cognizable at law.

The contract between the parties contained a stipulation that the payment of the purchase money of the property should be secured by the execution of a deed of trust on the whole amount of a claim the purchaser had on the United States. The penalty which was to be paid on the nonperformance of the contract, being substituted for the purchase money, it should retain the same. protection.

A conveyance of the whole of his property by a husband to trustees for the benefit of his wife and his issue is a voluntary conveyance, and is at this day held by the courts of England to be absolutely void under the statute of the twenty-seventh of Elizabeth against a subsequent purchaser, even although he purchased with notice. These decisions do not maintain that a transaction valid at the time is rendered invalid by the subsequent act of the party. They do not maintain that the character of the transaction is changed, but that testimony afterwards furnished may prove its real character. The subsequent sale of the property is carried back to the deed of settlement, and considered as proving that deed to have been executed with a fraudulent intent to deceive a subsequent purchaser.

The Statute of Elizabeth is in force in the District of Columbia.

The rule which has been uniformly observed by this Court in construing statutes is to adopt the construction made by the courts of the country by whose

Page 30 U. S. 265

legislature the statute was enacted. This rule may be susceptible of some modification when applied to British statutes which are adopted in any of the states. By adopting them, they become our own as entirely as if they had been enacted by the Legislature of the state.

The construction which British statutes had received in England at the time of their adoption in this country -- indeed, to the time of the separation of this country from the British empire -- may very properly be considered as accompanying the statutes themselves and forming an integral part of them. But however subsequent decisions may be respected, and certainly they are entitled to great respect, their absolute authority is not admitted. If the English courts vary their construction of a statute which is common to both countries, we do not hold ourselves bound to fluctuate with them.

At the commencement of the American Revolution, the construction of the Statute of Elizabeth seems to have been settled. The leaning of the courts towards the opinion that every voluntary settlement would be deemed void as to subsequent purchaser was very strong, and few cases are to be found in which such conveyance has been sustained. But those decisions seem to have been made on the principle that such subsequent sale furnishes a strong presumption of a fraudulent intent, which threw on the person claiming under the settlement the burden of proving it from the settlement itself, or from extrinsic circumstances to be made in good faith, rather than as furnishing conclusive evidence not to be repelled by any circumstances whatever.

There is some contrariety and some ambiguity in the old cases on the subject, but this Court conceives that the modern decisions establishing the absolute conclusiveness of a subsequent sale to fix fraud on a family settlement, made without valuable consideration -- fraud not to be repelled by any circumstances whatever -- go beyond the construction which prevailed at the American Revolution, and ought not to be followed.

A subsequent sale, without notice, by a person who had made a settlement not on valuable consideration, was presumptive evidence of fraud, which threw on those claiming under such settlement the burden of proving that it was made bona fide. This principle, therefore, according to the uniform course of this Court, must be adopted in construing the statute of 27 Eliz. as it applies to this case.

In the Circuit Court for the County of Alexandria, the appellant, William Robinson, filed a bill for the specific execution of a contract entered into between him and Mr. James Leander Cathcart on 10 September, 1822.

The bill was filed in March, 1829, and an injunction issued as prayed. Afterwards, in July, 1829, the proceedings in the case were removed to Washington by a bill filed there in which was incorporated the former bill and other matters and introducing, as parties, the trustee of Mrs. Cathcart, and praying

Page 30 U. S. 266

that the injunction may be extended to him, and to the cashier of the Bank of the United States, and the officers of the Treasury, to prevent the payment over of a fund alleged in the bill to the pledged for the performance of the contract.

The circuit court gave a decree in favor of the complainant, and Mr. Cathcart appealed to this Court.

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