Garrison v. City of New York
88 U.S. 196 (1874)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Garrison v. City of New York, 88 U.S. 21 Wall. 196 196 (1874)

Garrison v. City of New York

88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 196

Syllabus

1. An act of the Legislature of the State of New York passed in 1871 in relation to the widening and straightening of Broadway in the City of New York, authorizing the supreme court of the state to vacate an order made in 1870 confirming the report of commissioners of estimate and assessment respecting the property taken, from which order no appeal was allowable if error, mistake, irregularity or illegal acts appeared in the proceedings in the proceedings of the commissioners or the assessments for benefit or award for damage, or either of them, had been unfair and unjust or inequitable or oppressive as respects the city or any person affected thereby, and to refer the matter back to new commissioners to amend or correct the report or to make a new assessment is not unconstitutional as impairing the obligation of contracts or depriving a person of a vested right without due process of law.

2. In the proceeding to condemn property for public use, there is nothing in the nature of a contract between the owner and the state, or the corporation which the state, in virtue of her right of eminent domain, authorizes to take the property, all that the constitution of the state or of the United States or justice requiring in such cases being that a just compensation shall be made to the owner; his property can then be taken without his assent.

Page 88 U. S. 197

On the 17th of May, 1869, the legislature of the State of New York passed an act [Footnote 1] providing for the widening and straightening of Broadway, in the City of New York, between Thirty-fourth and Fifty-ninth Streets. It required the commissioners of the Central Park of the city, within four months after its passage, to lay out and establish the lines of the street so as to widen and straighten it, and to cause certificates and maps of the location of the new lines to be filed in certain public offices of the city, and declared that such certificates and maps should be final and conclusive as to the extent and boundaries of the proposed improvement, and that the part of Broadway thus laid out and established should be one of the public streets of the city in like manner and with the same effect as if it had been so laid out on the plan of the city under an act passed in 1807. [Footnote 2] It also provided that any part of the street not embraced within the new lines should be closed, and that all acts of the legislature then in force relating to the opening, widening, and improving of streets in the city should apply to that part of Broadway thus laid out, and to all proceedings under the act so far as they were applicable.

The act further required the corporation counsel, when

Page 88 U. S. 198

the commissioners had filed their maps and certificates, to take the proper steps on behalf of the city to acquire title to the lands needed, and for that purpose to apply to the supreme court at any special term thereof for the appointment of commissioners of estimate and assessment, who were authorized to assess upon the city such part of the expenses of the improvement as in their opinion would be just and equitable, not exceeding one-third of the whole, and to designate in their report, which was to be made within eight months after their appointment, the time for the opening of the street.

The commissioners thus appointed were required to make a just and equitable estimate and assessment of the loss and damage, if any, over and above the benefit and advantage, or of the benefit and advantage, if any, over and above the loss and damage, as the case might be, to the respective owners, lessees, occupants, or owners, and persons entitled to or interested in the lands and premises required, or affected by the proceedings, the assessment for benefit and advantage to be confined within certain designated limits.

The act further provided that all awards to the city should be placed by the chamberlain (the treasurer of the city) to the credit of the sinking fund, and that all other awards should be paid by him to the parties entitled thereto.

Under this act, the measures authorized were taken and three commissioners of estimate and assessment were appointed by the supreme court, who made a report of their proceedings, which was confirmed by order of the court on the 28th of December, 1870.

The report included, among numerous other awards, an award of $40,000 to one Garrison as his damages for taking a portion of a leasehold estate held by him on Broadway, and it fixed the time for the actual opening of the new street at the 31st of December, 1870.

At the time of the passage of the Act of May 17, 1869, there was an act in force -- an act, namely, of April 9, 1813 -- regulating proceedings for opening or improving

Page 88 U. S. 199

streets in the City of New York, and which, therefore (unless modified, as perhaps it was, by a certain act of 1818), by the provisions of the said act of 1869 was applicable to the improvement authorized. This act, it was asserted, applied to the proceedings under the special act of 1869 in the following particulars:

1st. In that it made the report of the commissioners of estimate and assessment, when confirmed by the court, "final and conclusive" upon all parties.

2d. In that it gave the corporation, on the confirmation of the report, seizin in fee of the lands taken, with a right of possession instanter without any suit or proceeding.

3d. In that it gave to each owner of land taken an absolute right to receive payment of the damages awarded to him within four calendar months after the confirmation of the report.

4th. In that in case of nonpayment by the city within that period, after application, it gave to each owner of land taken a right to sue for and recover his damages with interest and costs in any court of competent jurisdiction, and made the act itself and the report of the commissioners, with proof of the right and title of the plaintiff to the sum demanded, conclusive evidence in the action.

On the 27th of February, 1871, nearly two months after the confirmation of the report, the legislature passed an act authorizing an appeal from the order of confirmation on behalf of the city to be taken at any time within four months from the date of its entry. The act also provided that within this period, notwithstanding the pendency of the appeal, a motion might be made on behalf of the city to any justice of the supreme court, at a special term or chambers, to vacate the order, and made it the duty of the court or justice to hear the same, and declared that if it should appear that there was any error, mistake, or irregularity, or illegal act in the proceedings at any stage, or that the assessments for benefit or the awards for damage, or either of them, had been unfair and unjust, or inequitable and oppressive, as respects the city or any person affected thereby, the court

Page 88 U. S. 200

or justice should vacate the order of confirmation, which should then be void, and refer the matter back to new commissioners, who should proceed to amend and correct the report, or to make a new assessment, in whole or in part, as the court or justice should direct.

Under this act, upon notice to the parties interested, a motion was made on behalf of the city at a special term of the supreme court to vacate the order. Upon this motion affidavits were read and the parties were heard by counsel. The court vacated the order of confirmation and appointed new commissioners to amend and correct the report and make a new award of damage and assessment. In its order vacating the confirmation, and as a basis for the order, the court declared that it appeared that there had been error, mistake, irregularity, and illegal acts in the proceedings, and that the assessments for benefit and the award for damages had been unfair, unjust, inequitable, and oppressive, as respects the city and others.

On appeal from this order to the general term [Footnote 3] by another party to whom an award had also been made, the act was declared not to impair the obligation of contracts nor to deprive any person of property without due process of law, and to be constitutional.

On further appeal to the court of appeals, that court held that, independently of the Act of 1871, the court had power to set aside, on motion, an order confirming a report of commissioners, for irregularity, mistake, or fraud. [Footnote 4]

In both courts, the constitutionality of the act was discussed, and both courts held that the provision of the Act of 1813 that the report of the commissioners, when confirmed by the supreme court, shall "be final and conclusive" had reference only to an appeal from the order of confirmation, not to a motion to set it aside.

The present action was brought by Garrison against the city to recover the award of $40,000 made to him by the

Page 88 U. S. 201

report of the first commissioners, the plaintiff alleging in his complaint the ownership of the leasehold estate taken, the proceedings for the estimate and assessment of damages, and the confirmation of the report by the supreme court on the 28th of December, 1870, and insisting that by force of the act of the legislature, and the laws therein referred to, the proceedings were final and conclusive, and that the fee of the property had vested in the city, and the right to the payment of the award had vested in the plaintiff.

In answer to this action, the city set up the proceedings by which the award was vacated and insisted that the title to the premises mentioned had not vested in the city and that the right to the amount awarded had not vested in the plaintiff.

To this plea the plaintiff demurred on the ground that the Act of February 27, 1871, was repugnant to the Constitution of the United States in that it impaired the obligation of a contract, and to the Constitution of the state, in that it undertook to divest a vested right contrary to the law of the land and without due process of law.

The court overruled the demurrer, sustained the plea as a bar to the action, and gave judgment for the defendant. To reverse that judgment, the case was brought to this Court, and here the plaintiff renewed the same objections urged on the demurrer in the court below.

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