Harris v. Runnels - 53 U.S. 79 (1851)
U.S. Supreme Court
Harris v. Runnels, 53 U.S. 12 How. 79 79 (1851)
Harris v. Runnels
53 U.S. (12 How.) 79
Where a defendant, when sued upon a note, set up, as a defense, that the note was given for an illegal consideration, the whole statute must be examined in order to discover whether or not the legislature intended to prevent courts of justice from enforcing contracts relating to the act prohibited.
Where a statute prohibits an act or annexes a penalty to its commission, it is true that the act is made unlawful, but it does not follow that the unlawfulness of the act was meant by the legislature to avoid a contract made in contravention of it.
Where a statute is silent and contains nothing from which the contrary can properly be inferred, a contract in contravention of it is void. But the whole statute must be examined in order to decide whether or not it does contain anything "from which the contrary can be properly inferred."
Thus, where a statute of Mississippi declared that slaves should not be brought into the state without a previous certificate signed by two freeholders, with a certificate of the clerk of the county from which they came, certifying that the signers were respectable freeholders, and slaves were brought in without such certificate and sold, the contract is not void, but the purchaser must pay his note given for the purchase money.
Other parts of the statute indicate that the legislature did not intend to declare the contract void, as, for example, a part in which a fine is imposed upon the buyer and also upon the seller.
The action was originally brought by Rowan & Harris upon the following note. Rowan having died during the suit, it was prosecuted by Harris the surviving partner. It will be perceived that the action was by the endorsees against the endorser.
"Dollars 8,671.33 1/3."
"On or before the first day of March, eighteen hundred and forty, I promise to pay H. G. Runnels, or order, eighty-six hundred and seventy-one 33 1/3 dollars, negotiable and payable at the Planters' Bank, Natchez, Miss., value received, this 7 December, 1837."
"G. W. ADAMS"
"For value received, I transfer and assign over to Rowan & Harris the within note of $8,671.33 1/3; said note is secured by mortgage on lands, of record in Bolivar county, Miss., and I vest in said Rowan & Harris the right to control said mortgage."
"Given under my hand this 22d July, 1838."
"H. G. RUNNELS"
"Rowan & Harris"
Before stating the pleas of the defendant, it is proper to refer to a statute of Mississippi passed in 1852. Howard & Hutch. Dig. 155
Sec. 1. Describes who are slaves; such as are brought in pursuant to law &c.
Sec. 2. Slaves may be brought in, except convicts.
Sec. 3. No person shall bring in or hold convicts.
Sec. 4. Slaves not to be brought in without a previous certificate, signed by two respectable freeholders in the county and state from which the slaves were brought, and signed and acknowledged before the clerk of said county, and certified by the clerk that the persons whose signatures were affixed thereto were respectable freeholders of the county and neighborhood where they resided, containing a particular description of the stature and complexion of such slaves, together with the names, ages, and sex of the same, and furthermore that the slaves therein mentioned and described had not been guilty or convicted of murder, burglary, or arson, or felony, within the knowledge or belief of such freeholders.
Sec. 5. The seller shall register the certificate in the Orphans' court, and swear that he believes it to be true.
Sec. 6. Seller or purchaser, contrary to this act, shall pay one hundred dollars for every slave so sold or purchased.
To the declaration of the plaintiff, Runnels plead three pleas, viz., the general issue of nonassumpsit and two special pleas. The conclusion of one of these pleas will show the nature of both.
"And the defendant avers that the said plaintiffs had not, previously to the importation of the slaves, sold as aforesaid to the said defendant, and had not previously to, nor at the time when the said slaves were sold to this defendant, obtained a certificate signed by two respectable freeholders in the county of the State of Virginia, from which said slaves were brought, and signed or acknowledged before the clerk of said county, in the State of Virginia, and certified by said clerk, that the persons whose signatures were affixed thereto were respectable freeholders of the county and neighborhood where they resided, containing a particular description of the stature and complexion of such slaves, together with the names, ages, and sex of the same; and furthermore, that the slaves therein mentioned and described had not been guilty or convicted of murder, burglary, or arson, or felony, within the knowledge or belief of such freeholders, in the said State of Virginia, and so this defendant says that the sale of said slaves to him was illegal and void, and the transfer and endorsement made by him of the note in the declaration was also illegal and void, and this he is ready to verify; wherefore &c."
The plaintiff joined issue upon the first plea, and demurred to the two special pleas. Upon the trial, the court below overruled the demurrers, and gave judgment for the defendant. Whereupon the plaintiff brought the case up to this Court by writ of error.