Trebilcock v. Wilson
79 U.S. 687 (1870)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Trebilcock v. Wilson, 79 U.S. 12 Wall. 687 687 (1870)

Trebilcock v. Wilson

79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 687

Syllabus

1. Where a plaintiff in error set up in the court below that he was entitled to have a note held by him and made by the defendant in error paid in gold or silver coin under the Constitution upon a proper construction of various clauses of that instrument, and the decision of the court below was against the right thus set up, this Court has appellate jurisdiction under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789 or the 2d section of the Amendatory Judiciary Act of 1867, to review the decision. The case of Roosevelt v. Meyer, 1 Wall. 512, overruled.

2. Where it note is for dollars, payable by its terms in specie, the terms "in specie" are merely descriptive of the kind of dollars in which the note is payable, there being more than one kind of dollars current recognized by law, and mean that the designated number of dollars shall be paid in so many gold or silver dollars of the coinage of the United States.

3. The Act of February 25, 1862, in declaring that the notes of the United States shall be lawful money and a legal tender for all debts, only applies to debts which are payable in money generally, and not to obligations payable in commodities or obligations of any other kind.

4. When a contract for money is by its terms made payable in specie or in coin, judgment may be entered thereon for coined dollars. Bronson v. Rhodes, 7 Wall. 229, affirmed.

In June, 1861, Wilson gave to Trebilcock his promissory note for nine hundred dollars, due one year after date with ten percent interest, payable in specie and, at the same time, to secure its payment, he and his wife executed and delivered to Trebilcock a mortgage, duly recorded, upon certain real property in Iowa.

In February, 1863, Wilson offered to pay the amount due on the note, principal and interest, and for that purpose tendered to Trebilcock such amount in United States notes, declared by the Act of Congress of February 25, 1862, [Footnote 1] to be a legal tender for all debts, public and private, with certain exceptions, but Trebilcock refused to receive them, asserting that the note was payable in gold or silver coin of the United States.

Page 79 U. S. 688

In July, 1865, Wilson and wife presented to one of the district courts of Iowa their petition, reciting the contract to pay "in specie" and setting forth that they had tendered to Trebilcock the full amount of money, principal and interest, due, "said money so offered and tendered being United States legal tender Treasury notes, commonly called greenbacks;" setting forth further that Trebilcock had refused to accept the same, "because," among other reasons,

"the said money was not in kind what the contract demanded or called for; . . . the said defendant claiming that the same was payable only in gold or silver coin,"

and praying finally that Trebilcock might be required by decree to release and discharge the mortgage upon the proper book of record, as required by law upon the payment of a mortgage debt. The complainants averred that they had kept the money tendered, ready to pay the defendant, and that they brought the same into court for that purpose.

The defendant demurred to the petition, and for causes, among others of demurrer, set down the following:

"1st. The petition shows upon its face that by the contract the note could only be discharged by payment of the amount due thereon in gold."

"2d. The petition asks the aid of this Court for the reason that the petitioners tendered the amount of the note described in the petition in United States Treasury notes. Such tender is not good. There is no law of this state or of the United States making anything but gold and silver a legal tender in discharge of the contract set out in the petition. This contract was entered into on the 25th day of June, 1861. The law of Congress making United States Treasury notes a legal tender in payment of debts does not apply to this contract, because it was not enacted until long after this contract was entered into, to-wit, on the 25th day of February, 1862. To apply this law to this contract would be to make it a retrospective law, a law impairing the obligation of contracts, in violation of the Constitution of the United States."

The court overruled the demurrer, and in September, 1866, gave its decree, that the mortgage be cancelled, and

Page 79 U. S. 689

that the defendant enter satisfaction of it upon the record, thus holding that the tender in notes was legal and sufficient.

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Iowa, this decree was, in October, 1857, affirmed, and the defendant brought the case here on a writ of error, under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789.

That section was reenacted, with some changes in its phraseology, by the 2d section of the act of 1867, amending the Judiciary Act of 1789. As the old section was the ground of argument at the bar and the new one is adverted to in the opinion of the court, both are here presented.

"Judiciary Act of 1789 [Footnote 2]"

"SEC. 25. And be it further enacted that a final judgment or decree in any suit, in the highest court [of law or equity] of a state in which a decision in the suit could be had,"

"Where is drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of, or an authority exercised under, the United States, and the decision is AGAINST their validity,"

"Or where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of or an authority exercised under any state, on the ground of their being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, and the decision is in favor of such their validity;"

"Or where is drawn in question the construction of any clause of the Constitution, or of a treaty, or statute of, or commission held under the United States, and the decision is AGAINST the title, right, privilege [or exemption], specially set up or claimed by either party, under such [clause of the said] Constitution, treaty, statute [or], commission, may be reexamined and reversed or affirmed in the Supreme Court of the United States upon a writ of error, . . . in the same manner and under the same regulations, and the writ shall have the same effect as if the judgment or decree complained of had been rendered or passed in a [circuit] court, and the proceeding upon the reversal shall also be the same, except that the Supreme Court [instead of remanding the cause for a final decision, as before provided], may at their discretion [if the cause shall have been once remanded before], proceed to a final decision of the same, and award execution [but no other error shall be assigned or regarded as a ground of reversal in any such case as aforesaid than such as appears on the face of the record, and immediately respects the before-mentioned questions of validity or construction of the said Constitution, treaties, statutes, commissions, or authorities in dispute]."

"Amendatory Judiciary Act of 1867 [Footnote 3]"

"SEC. 2. And be it further enacted that a final judgment or decree in any suit in the highest court of a state in which a decision in the suit could be had,"

"Where is drawn in question the validity of a treaty or statute of, or an authority exercised under, the United States, and the decision is AGAINST their validity,"

"Or where is drawn in question the validity of a statute of or an authority exercised under any state, on the ground of their being repugnant to the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, and the decision is in favor of such their validity;"

"Or where any title, right, privilege, or immunity is claimed under the Constitution, or any treaty or statute of, or commission held, or authority exercised under the United States, and the decision is AGAINST the title, right, privilege [or immunity], specially set up or claimed by either party under such constitution, treaty, statute, commission [or authority], may be reexamined and reversed or affirmed in the Supreme Court of the United States upon a writ of error . . . in the same manner and under the same regulations, and the writ shall have the same effect as if the judgment or decree complained of had been rendered or passed in a court [of the United States], and the proceeding upon the reversal shall also be the same, except that the Supreme Court may, at their discretion, proceed to a final decision of the same, and award execution [or remand the same to an inferior court]."

Mr. G. B. Corkhill, for the defendant in error, asked to have the case dismissed for want of jurisdiction, relying on Roosevelt

Page 79 U. S. 691

v. Meyer, [Footnote 4] as in point. There Meyer, a mortgagor, tendered in United States notes, authorized by the Act of February 25, 1862 (the sort of notes tendered here), then at a discount of 4 percent for gold, to Roosevelt, his mortgagee, the amount due on a mortgage, one created in 1854, like this one, before the passage of the legal tender acts. Roosevelt refused the tender, demanding coin. The highest court of New York decided that the notes were a good tender, and though it appeared by the order of that court for judgment that on the hearing of the case Roosevelt relied on the provision of the Constitution that "the Congress shall have power to coin money and regulate the value thereof," and of the 5th, 9th, and 10th amendments, which ordain that "no person shall be deprived of property without due process of law," that "the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people," and that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively or to the people" -- against all which, as he contended the decision of the New York court sustaining the tender had been -- this Court dismissed the case for want of jurisdiction. It said that "as the validity of the act of February 25, 1862, was drawn in question, and the decision was in favor of it, this Court could not take cognizance of the case."

But if jurisdiction exists, the unsettled condition of the law of legal tender justifies asking a review of the whole subject, cases of coin contract (if this one falls within that class) as well as others.

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