Green v. Lessee of Neal - 31 U.S. 291 (1832)
U.S. Supreme Court
Green v. Lessee of Neal, 31 U.S. 6 Pet. 291 291 (1832)
Green v. Lessee of Neal
31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 291
In the case of Patton's Lessee v. Easton, this Court, after examining the provisions of the statute of limitations of Tennessee in reference to a peaceable possession of land for seven years by virtue of a grant or deed of conveyance founded upon a grant and no legal claim by suit set up to the lands, say "this question, too, has at length been decided in the Supreme Court for the State of Tennessee, which have settled the construction of the act of 1797." It has been decided that a possession of seven years is a bar only when held "under a grant or a deed founded on a grant." "The deed must be connected with the grant. This Court concurs in that opinion." The two cases to which the court referred were decided in 1805, and the court considered that they settled the construction of the act of 1797. But it is now made to appear that these decisions were made under such circumstances that they were never considered in the State of Tennessee as fully settling the construction of the act. The question was frequently raised before the Supreme Court of Tennessee, but the construction of the two statutes of limitations was never considered as finally settled until 1828, when the case of Gray and Reeder v. Darby's Lessee was decided. In that case it has been adjudged that it is not necessary to entitle an individual to the benefit of the statutes that he should show a connected
title, either legal or equitable. That if he prove an adverse possession, under a deed, of seven years before suit is brought, and show that the land has been granted, he brings himself within the statutes. Since this decision, the law has been considered! settled in Tennessee, and there has been so general an acquiescence in all the courts of the state, that the point is not now raised or discussed. As it appears to this Court, that the construction of the statutes of limitations of Tennessee is now well settled, different from what was supposed to be the rule at the time this Court decided the case of Patton's Lessee v. Easton, and the case of Powell's Lessee v. Green, and as the instructions of the circuit court of Tennessee were governed by these decisions, and not by the settled law of the state, the judgment must be reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings.
This Court has uniformly adopted the decisions of the state tribunals, respectively, in the construction of their statutes. This has been done as a matter of principle in all cases where the decision of a state court has become a rule of property.
In a great majority of the causes brought before the federal tribunals, they are called on to enforce the laws of the states. The rights of parties are determined under these laws, and it would be strange perversion of principle if the judicial exposition of these laws by the state tribunals should be disregarded. These expositions constitute the law, and fix the rule of property. Rights are acquired under this rule, and it regulates all the transactions which come within its scope.
On all questions arising under the Constitution and laws of the Union, this
Court may exercise a revising power, and its decisions are final and obligatory, on all other judicial tribunals, state as well as federal. A state tribunal has a right to examine any such questions, and to determine thereon, but its decision must conform to that of the Supreme Court, or the corrective power may be exercised. But the case is very different when the question arises under a local law. The decision of this question by the highest tribunal of a state should be considered as final by this Court, not because the state tribunal in such a case has any power to bind this Court, but because, in the language of the Court in the case of Shelby v. Guy, 11 Wheat. 361, "a fixed and received construction by a state in its own courts makes a part of the statute law."
If the construction of the highest judicial tribunal of a state forms a part of the statute law, as much as an enactment by the legislature, how can this Court make a distinction between them? There could be no hesitation in so modifying our decisions as to conform to any legislative alteration in a statute; and why should not the same rule apply where the judicial branch of the state government, in the exercise of its acknowledged functions, should, by construction, give a different effect to a statute from what had at first been given to it. The charge of inconsistency might be made with more force and propriety against the federal tribunals for a disregard of this rule, than by conforming to it. They profess to be bound by the local law, and yet they reject the exposition of that law which forms apart of it. It is no answer to this objection that a different exposition was formerly given to the act which was adopted by the federal court. The inquiry is what is the settled law of the state, at the time the decision is made. This constitutes the rule of property within the state, by which the rights of litigant parties must be determined.
As the federal tribunals profess to be governed by this rule, they cannot act inconsistently by enforcing it. If they change their decision, it is because the rule on which the decision was founded has been changed.
The facts of the case are fully stated in the opinion of the Court, delivered by