Life & Fire Ins. Co. of New York v. Heirs of Wilson
33 U.S. 291 (1834)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Life & Fire Ins. Co. of New York v. Heirs of Wilson, 33 U.S. 8 Pet. 291 291 (1834)

Life & Fire Insurance Company of New York v. Heirs of Wilson

33 U.S. (8 Pet.) 291

ON MOTION FOR MANDAMUS TO THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE

UNITED STATES FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA

Syllabus

Mandamus. The district judge of Louisiana refused to sign the record of judgment rendered in a case by his predecessor in office. By the law of Louisiana and the rule adopted by the district court, the judgment, without the signature of the judge, cannot be enforced. It is not a final judgment on which a writ of error may issue for its reversal. Without the action of the judge, the plaintiffs can take no step in the case. They can neither issue execution on the judgment nor reverse the proceedings by writ of error.

On a motion for a mandamus, the Court held the district judge is mistaken in supposing that no one but the judge who renders the judgment can grant anew trial. He, as the successor of his predecessor, can exercise the same powers, and has a right to act on every case that remains undecided upon the docket, as fully as his predecessor could have done. The court remains the same, and the change of the incumbents cannot and ought not in any respect to injure the rights of litigant parties. The judgment maybe erroneous, but this is no reason why the judge should not sign it. Until his signature be affixed to the judgment, no proceedings can be had for its reversal. He has therefore no right to withhold his signature where, in the exercise of his discretion, he does not set aside the judgment. The court therefore directed that a writ of mandamus be issued directing the district judge to sign the judgment.

On a mandamus, a superior court will never direct in what manner the discretion of an inferior tribunal shall be exercised, but it will in a proper case require an inferior court to decide. But so far as it regards the case under consideration, the signature of the judge was not a matter of discretion. It followed as a necessary consequence of the judgment unless the judgment had been set aside by a new trial. The act of signing the judgment is a ministerial and not a judicial act. On the allowance of a writ of error, a judge is required to sign a citation to the defendant in error; he is required in other cases to do acts which are not strictly judicial.

The writ of mandamus is subject to the legal and equitable discretion of the court, and it ought not to be issued in cases of doubtful right. But it is the only adequate mode of relief where an inferior tribunal refuses to act upon a subject brought properly before it.

A motion for a new trial is always addressed to the discretion of the court, and this Court will not control the exercise of that discretion by a circuit court either by a writ of mandamus or on a certificate of division between the judges.

Page 33 U. S. 292

This case, as stated in the opinion of the Court, was as follows:

This suit was commenced in the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana on 26 May, 1826. The action was brought on a mortgage on real property and slaves in the State of Louisiana to secure the payment of a large sum of money. And at the first term, the following judgment was entered.

"In this case, the plaintiffs having filed in this court a transaction, entered into between the parties, before Greenbury Ridgley Stringer, Esq., a notary public in and for the City of New Orleans, and the same being read to the court, it is thereupon ordered, adjudged, and decreed that in pursuance of said transaction, judgment be entered up in favor of the plaintiffs for all the notes therein specified which have become due and payable, with seven percent interest thereon, from the time they and each of them respectively arrived at maturity, to-wit, the sum of $1,100 due on 18 November, 1824; the sum of $4,000 due on 18 January, 1825; the sum of $960 due on 18 May, 1825; the sum of $725 due on 18 November, 1825, and the sum of $4,000 due on 18 January, 1826. It is further ordered, adjudged, and decreed in pursuance of the transaction aforesaid that whenever any of the notes mentioned in said transaction, as yet not arrived at maturity, shall become due and payable, that then judgment shall be entered up for the plaintiffs, upon all and every of the said notes as they arrive at maturity, with seven percent interest from the time they become due and payable, until their final judgment. It is further ordered, adjudged, and decreed that there shall be a stay of execution on said judgment until 18 January, 1829, and that if the amount of the judgment in this suit is not then paid, including principal, interest, and costs on said day, that the said slaves and movable property described in the mortgage mentioned in plaintiff's petition shall be sold according to law to satisfy the judgment in the premises."

By the code of practice of Louisiana, sec. 3 and art. 546, it is provided that

"The judge must sign all definitive or final

Page 33 U. S. 293

judgments rendered by him, but he shall not do so until three judicial days have elapsed, to be computed from the day when such judgments were given."

In conformity with the practice of the state courts under this law, it seems the District Court of the United States in Louisiana has adopted a rule which requires all its judgments to be signed. But the judge who rendered the above judgment departed this life before he signed it, and no proceedings were had in the case until 21 May, 1832, when a notice was filed in the clerk's office to the heirs of Wilson that at the next term, application would be made to the district judge on behalf of the plaintiffs to sign the judgment. A motion to this effect was made which was overruled by the court.

At the last term of this Court, a rule was granted on the district judge, to show cause why a mandamus should not be issued commanding him to sign the judgment and direct execution. And at the present term, the district judge, in obedience to the rule, gives the following reasons why he refused to sign the judgment and award execution in the case.

"At the May term, 1826, Judge Robinson caused the judgment to be entered. That he did not sign the judgment, although he held three terms afterwards and did not die until in the autumn of 1828. And now the plaintiffs move that I, as his successor, shall sign the judgment in order to render it executory."

"This application is resisted by the defendants on several grounds, but principally, 1st., because they say there never way any legal judgment given, and secondly, that the record of the proceedings does not exhibit such a case as entitled the plaintiffs to judgment."

"If the first position of the defendants be correct, viz. that no legal judgment has been given, the application of the plaintiffs must fail."

"By a positive law of the State of Louisiana, all judgments rendered, if not set aside for legal cause within a given number of days, must be signed by the judge before execution can be taken out upon them; in other words, the judgments are not complete, or rather are no judgments at all, until they are so signed. A law of this state expressly requires the signature of the judge before the judgment can be carried into effect, for there may arise sufficient reasons between the rendition

Page 33 U. S. 294

of a judgment pro forma and the time allowed for signing it to induce the judge to withhold his signature. That such reasons did arise in this case may be presumed, for it is a legal presumption that public functionaries perform their duty when required, and although it is not expected that a judge will call for and sign judgments without being so required, yet it is strange that a party so much interested, should not have made application to the judge in the course of two years to sign this judgment; and it is also remarkable that the plaintiff's attorney of record, who procured the making of the judgment entries, never has, to this day, made any such application, but on the contrary, the record shows that they subsequently instituted new suits in the name of the assignees of the original plaintiffs against the same defendants to recover the amount now in controversy. Why did they proceed in this manner if they had a right to the original judgment? The judge's signature to a judgment being, by our law, an essential part of it inasmuch as it is a dead letter without it, it follows that he who signs it thereby makes it his own judgment. Therefore, were I to give validity to what is here called a judgment by affixing to it my signature, would it not be to pronounce on the rights of the parties whose cause I have never heard?"

These, and other reasons assigned in illustration of the principles above stated induced the district judge to refuse his signature to the judgment.

Page 33 U. S. 302

MR. JUSTICE McLEAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

In the argument on the motion to make the rule for a mandamus absolute various objections were taken against the jurisdiction of the district court.

It is insisted that the plaintiffs, in their corporate capacity, can neither make a contract in Louisiana nor enforce it in that state by suit, and if they could, the proceedings in the case were erroneous and might be reversed on a writ of error.

In the consideration of the question now before the Court, they do not consider themselves authorized to examine into the regularity of the proceedings in the case before the district court, as they would do on a writ of error. The point of inquiry is where the district judge, under the circumstances of the case, was bound to sign the judgment.

The writ of mandamus is subject to the legal and equitable discretion of the Court, and it ought not to be issued in cases

Page 33 U. S. 303

of doubtful right. But it is the only adequate mode of relief where an inferior tribunal refuses to act upon a subject brought properly before it.

In this case, the district judge seems to think that as the judgment was not rendered by him, he has no power to grant a new trial, as he is not acquainted with the facts and circumstances which should influence his discretion in making such an order, and that consequently he is not bound to sanction the judgment by his signature.

By the law of Louisiana and the rule adopted by the district court, the judgment, without the signature of the judge, cannot be enforced. It is not a final judgment on which a writ of error may issue, for its reversal. Without the action of the judge, the plaintiffs can take no step, unless it be the one they have taken in this case. They can neither issue execution on the judgment nor reverse the proceedings by writ of error. And if the reasons assigned by the judge shall be deemed a sufficient answer to the rule, the plaintiffs are without remedy on their judgment.

But the district judge is mistaken in supposing that no one but the judge who renders the judgment can grant a new trial. He, as the successor of his predecessor, can exercise the same powers, and has a right to act on every case that remains undecided upon the docket as fully as his predecessor could have done. The court remains the same, and the charge of the incumbents cannot and ought not in any respect to injure the rights of litigant parties.

The case referred to in 19 U. S. 6 Wheat. 542, 5 Cond. 170, asserts nothing in opposition to this principle. A motion for a new trial is always addressed to the discretion of the court, and this Court will not control the exercise of that discretion by a circuit court either by a writ of mandamus or on a certificate of division between the judges.

After the rendition of the judgment, three days are allowed by the law of Louisiana within which to move for a new trial, and if no new trial shall have been granted, the judge is required to sign the judgment at the expiration of this time. It may be in the power of a judge, under this law, in the state court, where the judgment has not been signed, to grant a new trial after the lapse of a much longer time than is specified in

Page 33 U. S. 304

the act, but this question is not raised in the present case, as the district judge has, in not granting a new trial, decided against it. It is immaterial what reasons may have influenced this decision, as it was a matter which rested in his discretion. But the important inquiry is whether, after refusing to grant a new trial, either on a full consideration of the merits or because he had not a sufficient knowledge of them, he was not bound to sign the judgment.

On a mandamus, a superior court will never direct in what manner the discretion of an inferior tribunal shall be exercised; but it will in a proper case require the inferior court to decide. But so far as it regards the case under consideration, the signature of the judge was not a matter of discretion. It followed as a necessary consequence of the judgment unless the judgment had been set aside by a new trial. The act of signing the judgment is a ministerial, and not a judicial, act. On the allowance of a writ of error, a judge is required to sign a citation to the defendant in error; he is required in other cases to do acts which are not strictly judicial.

The judgment may be erroneous, but this is no reason why the judge should not sign it. Until his signature be affixed to the judgment, no proceedings can be had for its reversal. He has, therefore, no right to withhold his signature where, in the exercise of his discretion, he does not set aside the judgment. As well might a judge refuse to enter up the judgment upon a verdict which he would not or could not set aside as to withhold his signature in the present case. The cause should be placed in such a posture as to enable the plaintiffs to proceed to another trial or to take out execution on their judgment. As the former has not been done, the latter may be claimed by the plaintiffs as a matter of right.

This Court therefore direct that the writ of mandamus be issued directing the district judge to sign the judgment agreeably to the prayer of the plaintiffs.

On motion of plaintiff for a mandamus to the district Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana.

On consideration of the rule granted in this cause by this Court on 14 March,

Page 33 U. S. 305

1833, which was duly served on the judge of the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana, as by reference to the proof of service on file in the clerk's office will appear, and of the return of the said judge setting forth his reasons at large, as also of the arguments of counsel for both the plaintiff and defendant in this cause, thereupon had, it is now here considered, ordered, and adjudged by this Court that the said rule be and the same is hereby made absolute, and it is further ordered and adjudged by this Court that a writ of mandamus be and the same is hereby awarded directing the said district judge to sign the judgment and to award execution thereon agreeably to the prayer of the plaintiff in the proceedings mentioned.

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