Attorney General v. Federal Street Meeting-House
66 U.S. 262

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U.S. Supreme Court

Attorney General v. Federal Street Meeting-House, 66 U.S. 1 Black 262 262 (1861)

Attorney General v. Federal Street Meeting-House

66 U.S. (1 Black) 262

ERROR TO THE SUPREME COURT

OF THE STATE OF MASSACHUSETTS

Syllabus

1. This Court has no jurisdiction to review the proceedings of a state court merely on the ground that the defendant is a body politic, incorporated by an act of the state legislature.

2. To sustain a writ of error from this Court to the state court in such a case, it must appear from the pleadings, evidence, or decree that the validity of the act of incorporation was drawn in question.

3. The validity of the act is not drawn in question where the defendants assert that they and those under whom they claim were owners of the land in dispute before the passage of the act as well as afterwards, and where the plaintiffs assert title in themselves under a deed in no way connected with the act.

4. Where the act incorporating the defendants was a mere enabling act, passed while they were in possession and intended for their convenience as owners and other persons claim to be the true owners, the issue is on the original rights of the parties, without respect to the defendant's charter.

The Attorney General of Massachusetts, at the relation of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Synod of the State of New York and others, ministers, elders, and the members of the Presbyterian Church, filed an information in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts against the proprietors of the Meeting House in Federal Street, Boston, alleging that the land on which said Meeting House is built was conveyed in 1735 by its then proprietor to trustees, to be held as a place for the preaching and maintaining of the doctrine, worship, and form of government of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, which was Calvinistic and Trinitarian, teaching the Westminster confession of faith and catechisms; that the Meeting House continued to be used according to the trust expressed in the deed until 1786, when various changes were introduced into the society and it became congregational; that this lasted until 1815, when the trust was wholly perverted and abused by the conversion of the congregation into a Unitarian society.

Page 66 U. S. 263

In 1805, while it was a congregational church, the Legislature of Massachusetts incorporated "all persons who now are or who may hereafter be the proprietors of pews in the Congregational Meeting House situate on Federal Street, Boston," by the name of "The Proprietors of the Meeting House in Federal Street, in the Town of Boston," and declared that the said corporation should be deemed seized of the Meeting House, with its appurtenances &c. The answer of the defendants sets forth, among other things, the act of incorporation, and avers that they were in possession long before the passage of that act; that they were in possession at the time of its passage, and have remained in possession ever since as the undisputed owners of the premises. The state court dismissed the information, 3 Gray 1, and this writ of error was taken by the relators.

Page 66 U. S. 265

MR. JUSTICE GRIER.

The writ of error in this case suggests, as a foundation for the jurisdiction of this Court,

"that there was drawn in question the validity of a statute of said commonwealth, to-wit, an Act of the legislature, passed the 15th day of June, 1805, entitled 'An act declaring and confirming the incorporation of the proprietors of the Meeting House in Federal Street,' in the Town of Boston, being repugnant to the Constitution of the United States, and the decision of the court was in favor of the validity of said statute."

Is this suggestion of the writ supported by the record either by direct averment or by any necessary intendment?

We think it is not.

1. The decree of the court is simply that the bill be dismissed without any reasons alleged for such dismissal.

2. The bill itself raises no such issue; it refers to the act in question only as conferring the privilege of a corporation on the defendant. It does not aver that the defendants pretend to have title to the property in question by virtue thereof, and challenge its validity.

The answer alleges that respondents were incorporated by the act of 1805, and that

"under it they are the true and sole

Page 66 U. S. 266

owners of the premises, and that said act was passed on the application and petition of parties who prior thereto were owners of pews or tenants in common of the land and the house thereon."

It is not alleged that the act "proprio vigore" divested the plaintiff's title and vested it in the corporation, but that the title was vested in the corporation at the request of the owners.

The only questions, therefore, which could arise on these pleadings were whether the persons who obtained the act of incorporation were the owners, and whether, after an adverse possession of forty years, a court of equity would interfere to disturb the possession of respondents.

The answer takes issue on the charge of the bill that Little and his associates had contributed land and money to support a public charity; it averred that on a proper construction of the original deed of the premises, the Meeting House was not dedicated to a charitable use, but was erected for their common use and held by them in proportion to the sums severally contributed, and consequently, if the representatives of these tenants in common had their rights transferred to the corporation, it was only a transfer of their rights by their consent, and for their own convenience -- an enabling act with which the complainants had no concern. The issue, then, was not on the validity of the act, but on the construction of the original deed or agreement of the parties who built the Meeting House. The validity of the act of assembly of Massachusetts was not, therefore, drawn in question directly by any averment of the pleadings by the decree or by any necessary intendment from other averments in the pleadings, or evidence on the record.

The opinion of the state court, to be found in 3 Gray 1, confirms this conclusion.

The case is therefore dismissed for want of jurisdiction.

Writ of error dismissed.

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