An action of ejectment was brought in a state court of Alabama
in which the parties were the same, the lands sought to be
recovered were the same, the issues were the same, and the proof
was the same as in this action. That case was taken to the supreme
court of the state, and it was there held that, whilst the
plaintiffs and those whom they represented had no legal right to
bring an action of ejectment pending a life estate in the premises,
yet, in view of a probate sale of the reversionary interest and the
recorded title thereto, and of the payment of the purchase price
into the estate and its distribution among the creditors of the
estate, the heirs had an equitable right to commence a suit to
remove the cloud on the title which the probate proceedings
created, and inasmuch as they had failed to do so during twenty
years, their right of action was barred under the doctrine of
prescription. The statutes of Alabama provide that two judgments in
favor of the defendant in an action of ejectment, or in an action
in the nature of an action of ejectment, between the same parties,
in which the same title is put in issue, are a bar to any action
for the recovery of the land or any part thereof between the same
parties or their privies founded on the same title. The plaintiffs,
availing themselves of this statute, brought this suit.
that although the judgment of this Court might be, if
the question were before it for original consideration, that the
bar of the statute would only begin to run upon the death of the
holder of the life estate, yet that the court of last resort of the
state having passed upon the
Page 154 U. S. 178
questions when the bar of the statute of prescription began to
be operative, and when the parties were obliged to bring their
action, whether legal or equitable, those questions were purely
within the province of that court, and this Court was bound to
apply and enforce its conclusions.
The plaintiffs in error, as heirs of Samuel P. Hudson, brought
two suits of ejectment for the recovery of certain lands. By
agreement, the suits were consolidated and tried as one. After
judgment on verdict in favor of the defendants, the case was
brought here by writ of error.
Samuel P. Hudson, a resident of Calhoun County in the State of
Alabama, died intestate in August, 1863. At the time of his death,
he was seised of certain parcels of land in Calhoun County. He left
a widow, Kezia A. Hudson, and several children, some of whom were
minors. James F. Grant was appointed administrator of his estate by
the probate court.
The widow petitioned the court for allotment of dower, and after
due proceedings in accordance with the laws of Alabama, her right
of dower in the land in controversy was duly recognized and
In January, 1866, the administrator petitioned the court to
order the sale of the real estate, saving the rights of dower of
the widow, in order to pay debts, alleging the insufficiency of the
To this petition the widow and heirs were made defendants, and a
guardian ad litem
was appointed to represent the minors. A
day was set for the hearing. All parties, including the minors'
guardian, were duly notified, and a commission was issued for the
examination of certain witnesses. The caption of the
interrogatories to be addressed to these witnesses recited that the
answers, when taken,
"were to be used in evidence before said court on the hearing of
and in behalf of the application made by James F. Grant,
administrator of said estate, to sell land belonging to said
The witnesses named appeared before the commissioners appointed
by the probate court, and testified as to their knowledge of the
land and of the heirs and distributees, and swore that, to the best
of their information and belief, the
Page 154 U. S. 179
personal property of the estate was insufficient to pay the
debts. The caption to the answers of each of the witnesses recites
that they were sworn and examined by virtue of a commission issued
out of the Probate Court of Calhoun County, Alabama, "in the matter
of the estate of Samuel P. Hudson, deceased, the application of
James F. Grant to sell land." The certificate of the commissioners
attests "the examination of the witnesses in the above-stated
matter of Samuel P. Hudson, deceased, on the application of J. F.
Grant, administrator, to sell land." The answers of the witnesses
under the commission were returned to the probate court and were
filed by the judge thereof on the 10th of February, 1866. On the
15th of February, 1866, the day set for the hearing of the
petition, the following order was entered:
"Probate Court for Calhoun County, Alabama"
"February 15th, A.D. 1866"
"This being the day set by a former order of this Court, the 9th
day of January, A.D. 1866, to hear and determine upon the petition
of James F. Grant, administrator of the estate of Samuel P. Hudson,
deceased, for the sale of the following described lands belonging
to said estate, for the purpose of paying the debts of the said
estate, to-wit: [Here follows a description of the real
"* * * *"
"And comes the said Grant and prays that his said petition and
application for the sale of the above-described land be heard and
determined at this term of the court, and it appearing to the
satisfaction of the court that notice of the filing of said
petition and of the day set for the hearing of the same had been
given according to law, thereupon the court proceeds to hear and
determine upon the facts of the said petition, and comes into court
L. W. Cannon, as the guardian of the minor heirs of said decedent,
and denies each and all of the allegations of said petition, and
thereupon said administrator introduces witnesses to sustain the
same, and, after hearing all the testimony in the case, the court
is of opinion
Page 154 U. S. 180
that the allegations of said petition are fully sustained by the
evidence in the case. It is therefore ordered and decreed by the
court that the above-described lands, as belonging to said estate,
be, and the same are hereby, directed to be sold for the payment of
the debts of said estate, subject, however, to the widow's dower
interest in said lands. It is further ordered that said lands be
sold on a credit of one and two years, with interest from the date
of sale. It is further ordered that said administrator, after
advertising the sale of said lands in the Jacksonville Republican
for three weeks, giving the time, place, and terms of sale, proceed
to sell the said lands known as the 'Steam Mill Tract,' at Blue
Mountain, and the Nunnelly place and town lots, before the
courthouse door, in the Town of Jacksonville, Ala."
"* * * *"
"It is ordered that said land be sold at public auction to the
highest bidder, and that said administrator secure the purchase
money for said lands by taking notes with two good solvent
"* * * *"
"A. Woods, Judge of Probate
At the sale thus ordered, the widow, Kezia A. Hudson, purchased
the reversionary interest in the lands in controversy for $450. The
administrator duly reported the sale to the probate court, stating
in his report that he had adjudicated to Kezia A. Hudson the
"remainder after the demands of the dower interest in the land,"
which had been set apart as Mrs. Hudson's dower. This report was
sworn to by the administrator, and on May 15, 1866, an order was
passed approving the same and ordering it to be filed. Afterwards
the administrator made a formal deed to the widow, which reads as
"Whereas, I, James F. Grant, administrator of all and singular
the goods and chattels, rights, and credits of the estate of Samuel
P. Hudson, deceased, did as said administrator apply, and obtain an
order from the Probate Court of Calhoun County, State of Alabama,
for an order
to sell the
Page 154 U. S. 181
real estate of which the said Samuel P. Hudson died seised and
possessed, subject, however, to the widow of said deceased's right
of dower, and whereas said widow did apply to said court of probate
to have dower allowed to her out of said lands, and, prior to the
time said sale was brought, there was set off and allowed to Mrs.
Kezia A. Hudson, widow of said deceased, the following lands,
"[Here follows a description of the lands.]"
"* * * *"
"Now know ye that, for and in consideration of the foregoing
premises and the payment of the said sum of four hundred and fifty
dollars, to me in hand paid by the said Kezia A. Hudson, the
receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, I, as such administrator,
have this day bargained and sold, and do by these presents bargain,
sell, and convey unto the said Kezia A. Hudson, her heirs and
assigns forever, all the remaining interest or right which there is
of the said lands; to have and to hold to the said Kezia A. Hudson,
her heirs and assigns forever; but I am in no event personally
liable upon the covenants of this deed. In witness whereof I have
hereunto set my hand and affixed my seal this 9th day of April,
"J. F. Grant [Seal]"
"Administrator of Samuel P. Hudson, Deceased
Upon which deed are the following endorsements, to-wit:
"State of Alabama"
"I, Alexander Woods, Judge of Probate in and for said county,
hereby certify that J. F. Grant, administrator of the estate of S.
P. Hudson, deceased, who is known to me, acknowledged before me on
this day that, being informed of the contents of the conveyance, he
executed the same voluntarily as such administrator on the day the
same bears date. Given under my hand this 9th day of April, A.D.
"A. Woods, Judge of Probate
Page 154 U. S. 182
"Filed in office April 9th, 1866, and recorded April 16th, 1866,
and that the deed had on it fifty cents revenue stamps, this 16th
day of April, A.D. 1866. A. Woods, Judge of Probate."
"State of Alabama"
"I, E. F. Crook, Judge of the Court of Probate and ex
clerk of said court, in and for said county and state,
do hereby certify that the foregoing three pages, inclusive,
contain a true and correct transcript of deed of J. F. Grant,
administrator of estate of S. P. Hudson, deceased, to Kezia A.
Hudson, as fully and as completely as appears of record in my
office. Given under my hand at office, in the Town of Jacksonville,
Alabama, on this 15th day of August, A.D. 1888."
"E. F. Crook"
"Judge of Probate and
ex officio Clerk of
"Court, Calhoun County, Ala.
On May 9, 1866, the administrator prayed the court that the
estate of his intestate might be declared insolvent, and, after due
hearing and notice to all parties in interest, the prayer was
Mrs. Hudson, the purchaser of the reversionary interest, lived
at the time of the sale, with her children, on the lands bought by
her. Subsequently she conveyed them to the firm of Sherman &
Boynton, who in turn conveyed them to H. L. Jeffers, and he again
to the Woodstock Iron Company, one of the defendants in error,
which latter sold a portion of the lands to the Anniston Land &
Improvement Company, and that corporation conveyed it to the
Anniston City Land Company, and, as was admitted, all the
purchasers went into possession at the time of their respective
conveyances, and held the lands openly and unequivocally as owners
thereof. The property, since the sale, has become very valuable, a
portion of it being within the municipal limits of the Town of
Anniston, and the other portion adjacent thereto. Mrs. Hudson died
June 26, 1879.
Page 154 U. S. 183
On June 28, 1887, action was brought by the heirs of Samuel P.
Hudson in the Circuit Court of Calhoun County to recover the lands
which had been sold in the probate proceedings. In that suit, the
parties were the same, the lands were the same, the issues were the
same, and the proof was the same as in the case now before us.
Judgment was given in the circuit court in favor of the plaintiffs.
This judgment, on appeal to the Supreme Court of Alabama, was
reversed on the ground that whatever rights the plaintiffs might
have originally possessed were barred by prescription.
Woodstock Iron Co. v. Fullenwider,
87 Ala. 587.
Section 2714 of the Code of Alabama provides:
"Two judgments in favor of the defendant in an action of
ejectment, or in an action in the nature of an action of ejectment,
between the same parties, in which the same title is put in issue,
is a bar to any action for the recovery of the land, or any part
thereof, between the same parties or their privies, founded on the
Availing themselves of this provision of the Alabama law, the
plaintiffs thereupon brought these suits in the Circuit Court of
the United States for the Northern District of Alabama. As before
stated, the parties, plaintiff and defendant, are the same, the
issues are the same, and the proof is the same as in the case
finally decided by the supreme court of the state. Under
instructions from the court, there was a verdict for the
defendants. The instructions will be found reported in 43 F. 648.
The facts were admitted below, and therefore the issues presented
are altogether questions of law, and were all reserved by bill of
exception taken during the trial below.
MR. JUSTICE WHITE, after stating the case, delivered the opinion
of the Court.
The plaintiffs rest their case upon an attack upon the
Page 154 U. S. 184
probate proceedings, which they assert to be absolutely void,
first, because the proof as to the necessity of the sale was not
"taken by deposition, as in chancery cases," and second because
there was no order of the court authorizing the administrator to
make a deed of the property to the purchaser. The first contention
is based upon the language of the decree of sale, which is as
follows: "And thereupon said administrator introduces witnesses to
sustain the same, and after hearing all the testimony in the case,
the court is of opinion," etc., and it is urged that this
statement, "the administrator introduces witnesses" necessarily
imports that depositions were not "taken as in chancery cases,"
according to the requirement of the Alabama statute.
We are also told that the depositions which were ordered to be
taken by the probate judge for the purpose of the inquiry, and
which when taken were filed by him, and constituted part of the
probate record, cannot be considered because the opinion makes no
reference to them, and therefore we must presume that they do not
exist, and the contention as to the deed is that it furnishes no
evidence of title, because there was no specific order of the court
to make it, although the sale was reported to the court, and by it
confirmed, and although the deed, when made, was returned to the
probate court, certified by the judge, and by him duly put of
These very technical contentions are in conflict with the
elementary rules by which the sanctity of probate proceedings are
upheld, and are based on the terms of an Alabama statute, to which,
we are told, a construction has been given by the courts of that
state which, however narrow and technical, is binding upon us.
The following provisions are found in the Alabama Code:
"2612 (3223). Civil suits must be commenced, after the cause of
action has accrued, within the periods prescribed in this chapter,
and not afterwards."
"2614 (3225). Within ten years. 1. . . "
"2. Actions for the recovery of lands, tenements, hereditaments,
or the possession thereof, except as herein otherwise provided.
Page 154 U. S. 185
"2624 (3236). If any one entitled to bring the actions
enumerated in this chapter, or make an entry on land, or defense
founded on the title to real property, be at the time such right
accrues, within the age of twenty-one years, or a married woman, or
insane, or imprisoned on a criminal charge for any term less than
for life, he or she shall have three years after the termination of
such disability to bring suit or make entry or defense, but no
disability shall extend the period of limitation so as to allow
such action to be commenced, or entry or defense made, after the
lapse of twenty years from the time the cause of action or right
accrued, nor shall this exception extend to a married woman in
respect to her separate estate."
We excerpt the following from the opinion of the Supreme Court
of Alabama, in the case of Woodstock Iron Co. v.
"The defendants, who are appellants in this Court, contend, on
the contrary, that all irregularities of sale and defects of title,
under the admitted facts of the case, are cured by the presumptions
arising from the lapse of twenty years, under the broad doctrine of
prescription now so thoroughly established in this state."
"The plaintiffs certainly had no right to sue in ejectment for
these lands before the death of the widow, who was tenant for life,
her possessions, so far at least as concerns the legal title in the
reversion, not being adverse or hostile to the heirs during the
continuance of such particular estate."
"* * * *"
"In considering this question, we shall regard the contention of
the appellees as well taken so far as to assume that the sale of
the administrator conferred no legal
title to the
reversion on the widow as purchaser under the probate proceedings
in March, 1866."
"Regarding the proceedings in the probate court as void at law
for the reasons stated, what, we may inquire, were the equitable
rights, if any, acquired under it by the purchaser? This question
has been fully settled by our past decisions. Where land of a
decedent is sold by the probate court for the
Page 154 U. S. 186
payment of debts, or for distribution, and the proceeding is
void for want of jurisdiction or otherwise, and the purchase money,
being paid to the administrator, is applied by him to the payment
of the debts of the decedent's estate, or is distributed to the
heirs, while the sale is so far void as to convey no title at law,
the purchaser nevertheless acquires an equitable title to the lands
which will be recognized in a court of equity. And he may resort to
a court of equity to compel the heirs or devisees to elect a
ratification or rescission of the contract of purchase. It is
deemed unconscionable that the heirs or devisees should reap the
fruits of the purchaser's payment of money, appropriated to the
discharge of debts, which were a charge on the lands, and at the
same time to recover the lands. They are estopped to deny the
validity of the sale and at the same time enjoy the benefits
derived from the appropriation of the purchase money. And this
principle applies to minors as well as adults. Bland v.
53 Ala. 152; Bell v. Craig,
52 Ala. 215;
Robertson v. Bradford,
73 Ala. 116. See also Ganey v.
76 Ala. 421."
The court then proceeded to hold that while the heirs of Hudson
had no legal right to bring an action of ejectment pending the life
estate in view of the probate sale of the reversionary interest and
the recorded title thereto and of the payment of the price into the
estate and its distribution among the creditors of the estate, the
heirs had an equitable right to bring an action to remove the cloud
on the title which the probate proceedings created, and, inasmuch
as they had failed to do so during twenty years, their right of
action was barred under the doctrine of prescription. We again
"Here, then, was the capacity to sue in a court of equity, so as
to sweep away a cloud on the title of the plaintiffs, and, by an
offer to do equity, to have the equitable title of the defendants,
acquired at the void sale, divested out of them by decree of a
Court of Chancery. A failure to exercise this right for over twenty
years is such laches
as authorizes the inference that the
right to do so is barred in any one of the
Page 154 U. S. 187
modes in which that result may be effected. If the only existing
right of action on the plaintiffs' part were at law -- if his only
or slumbering on his rights, consisted in his
failure to sue at law -- then, as we have often said,"
"the only fact open to inquiry in such cases would be the
character of defendants' possession, either in its original
acquisition, or in its continued use, as being, on the one hand,
permissive and in subordination, or, on the other, hostile and
"Long v. Parmer,
81 Ala. 384, and cases cited on page
388. But the laches
here imputed to the plaintiffs is the
fact of having allowed the probate court proceedings to remain
unassailed for over twenty years -- proceedings under which, though
void at law, a good equitable title to the reversion had been
acquired, accompanied with possession and claim of ownership, on
the part of the purchaser and her subvendees, during the whole of
this long period."
The conclusion of the Alabama court is assailed here on the
ground that it is unsound in law. While, of course, as the statutes
of the State of Alabama allow two actions in ejectment, the decree
of the Supreme Court of Alabama does not constitute "the thing
adjudged" in the case before us, we think the rule under which we
follow state statutes of limitation and the construction of such
statutes by the state courts compels us to treat the doctrine here
announced as conclusive of the present case, so far as this Court
is concerned. The whole subject was very fully reviewed by this
Court in the case of Bauserman v. Blunt, 147 U.
. There, through MR. JUSTICE GRAY, we said:
"By a provision inserted in the first Judiciary Act of the
United States, and continued in force ever since, Congress has
" The laws of the several states, except where the Constitution,
treaties or statutes of the United States otherwise require or
provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in trials at common
law in the courts of the United States in cases where they
"Act of September 24, 1789, c. 20, § 34, 1 Stat. 92; Rev.Stat. §
721. No laws of the several states have been more steadfastly or
more often recognized by this Court from the beginning as rules of
decision in the
Page 154 U. S. 188
courts of the United States than statutes of limitations of
actions, real and personal, as enacted by the legislature of a
state and as construed by its highest court. Higginson v.
4 Cranch 415, 8 U. S.
-420; Shelby v. Guy,
361, 24 U. S. 367
1 Pet. 352, 26 U. S.
; Henderson v. Griffin,
151; Green v. Neal,
6 Pet. 291,
31 U. S. 297
McElmoyle v. Cohen,
312, 38 U. S. 327
Harpending v. Dutch Church,
16 Pet. 455, 41 U. S. 493
Leffingwell v. Warren,
Black 599; Sohn v. Waterson,
596, 84 U. S. 600
Railroad v. Blossburg & Corning Railroad,
Wall. 137; Kibbe v. Ditto, 93 U. S.
; Davie v. Briggs, 97 U. S.
, 97 U. S. 637
; Amy v.
Dubuque, 98 U. S. 470
; Mills v.
Scott, 99 U. S. 25
, 99 U. S.
; Moores v. National Bank, 104 U. S.
; Michigan Insurance Bank v. Eldred,
130 U. S.
, 130 U. S. 696
v. Chesapeake &c. Railroad, 134 U. S.
; Barney v. Oelrichs, 138 U. S.
"In Patton v. Easton,
476, 14 U. S. 482
, and again in
2 Pet. 241, this Court had construed a
Tennessee statute of limitations of real actions in accordance with
decisions of the supreme court of the state, made since the first
of those cases was certified up to this Court and supposed to have
settled the construction of the statute. Yet in Green v.
6 Pet. 291, a judgment of the circuit court
of the United States, which had held itself bound by those cases in
this Court, was reversed because of more recent decisions of the
state court establishing the opposite construction."
Nor can the case before us be saved from the operation of the
rule thus stated by the contention that the Supreme Court of the
State of Alabama has misconstrued its statutes or has adopted a
rule of limitation or prescription in conflict therewith. In
2 Black 599, 603, Mr. Justice Swayne,
speaking for the Court, thus laid down the rule:
"The courts of the United States, in the absence of legislation
upon the subject by Congress, recognize the statutes of limitations
of the several states and give them the same construction and
effect which are given by the local tribunals. They are a rule of
decision under the 34th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789. The
construction given to a statute of a
Page 154 U. S. 189
state by the highest judicial tribunal of such state is regarded
as a part of the statute, and is as binding upon the courts of the
United States as the text. If the highest judicial tribunal of a
state adopt new views as to the proper construction of such a
statute and reverse its former decisions, this Court will follow
the latest settled adjudications."
These views meet every point presented here, and do not in any
way conflict with Burgess v. Seligman, 107 U.
; Carroll Co. v. Smith, 111
U. S. 562
; or Gibson v. Lyon, 115 U.
. None of those cases involved the question of the
conclusiveness on this Court of the decisions of the courts of a
state as to a statute of limitations and the bar created thereby.
It may be that if the question were before us for original
consideration, we should hold that the right of the heirs to sue
did not arise until after the death of the holder of the life
estate, and therefore that the bar of the statute would only then
began to run, but we are not at liberty to pass upon that question.
When the bar of the statute of prescription, under the laws and
decisions of the State of Alabama, began to be operative has been
construed by the court of last resort of that state. Necessarily
the determination of when the parties had a right to sue was a
question concerning the construction when the prescription
commenced to run, or when they were obliged to bring their action,
whether legal or equitable. Those questions were purely within the
province of the Supreme Court of Alabama. In deciding them, it
passed upon its own statute of limitations, or the doctrines of
prescription as applied by it, and we are obliged to apply and
enforce their conclusions.
To endorse the position of the plaintiffs in error, we should be
compelled at the same time to disregard the elementary rules by
which decrees of probate are sanctioned and upheld, on the ground
of a technical construction which, it is asserted, we are compelled
to adopt because of the decisions of the state court of Alabama,
and to depart from the settled rule under which this Court adheres
to the decisions of state courts of last resort in construing
statutes of limitation or enforcing the doctrine of prescription.
In other words, the success of the
Page 154 U. S. 190
plaintiffs' case depends upon our adhering to the rule by which
we follow the construction of state courts in a state matter on the
one hand, and departing from it on the other.
MR. JUSTICE JACKSON, not having heard the argument, took no part
in the decision of this cause.