Satterlee v. Mathewson,
27 U.S. 380 (1829)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Satterlee v. Mathewson, 27 U.S. 2 Pet. 380 380 (1829)

Satterlee v. Mathewson

27 U.S. (2 Pet.) 380


S. and R. M. held land in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, in common under a Connecticut title. A division of the land was made between them, and S. became the tenant of M. of his part of the land thus set off in severalty, under a lease, to be terminated on a notice of one year. S. afterwards obtained a Pennsylvania title to the land leased to him by M. and on a trial in an ejectment for the land brought by M against S., the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County, Pennsylvania, held that S., having held the land as tenant of M., could not set up a title against his landlord. Upon a writ of error to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1825, it was held that the relation between landlord and tenant could not exist between persons holding under a Connecticut title. The Legislature of Pennsylvania, on 8 April, 1826, passed an act declaring that

"The relation of landlord and tenant should exist and be held as fully and effectually between Connecticut settlers and Pennsylvania claimants as"

between citizens of the commonwealth.

The case came again before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and the judgment of the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County in favor of M., the landlord, was affirmed, that court having decided that the act of assembly of 8 April, 1826 was a constitutional act and did not impair the validity of any contract. S. brought a writ of error to this Court, claiming that the act of the Assembly of Pennsylvania of 8 April, 1826, was unconstitutional. Held that the act was constitutional.

Objections to the jurisdiction of this Court have been frequently made on the ground that there was nothing apparent on the record to raise the question whether the court from which the case had been brought had decided upon the constitutionality of a law, so that the case was within the provisions of the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789. This has given occasion for a critical examination of the section, which has resulted in the adoption of certain principles of construction applicable to it. One of those principles is that if the repugnancy of a statute of a state to the Constitution of the United States was drawn into question or if that question was applicable to the case, this Court has jurisdiction of the cause although the record should not in terms state a misconstruction of the Constitution of the United States or that the repugnancy of the statute of the state to any part of that Constitution was drawn into question.

There is nothing in the Constitution of the United States which forbids the Legislature of a state to exercise judicial functions.

There is no part of the Constitution of the United States which applies to a state law which divested rights vested by law in an individual, provided its effect be not to impair the obligation of a contract.

In the case of Fletcher v. Peck, 6 Cranch 87, it was stated by THE CHIEF JUSTICE that it might well be doubted whether the nature of society and of government do not prescribe some limits to the legislative power, and he asks

"if any be prescribed, where are they to be found, if the property of an individual,

Page 27 U. S. 381

fairly and honestly acquired, may be seized without compensation?"

It is nowhere intimated in that opinion that a state statute which divests a vested right is repugnant to the Constitution of the United States.

In 1784 or 1785, Elisha Satterlee, the father of the plaintiff in error, and Elisha Matthewson, the husband of the defendant in error, the defendant in error being the sister of Elisha Satterlee, went to a large body of land in Lezerne County, Pennsylvania, part of which was the land in controversy, and both took possession of the same under, as is believed, a supposed title from the Susquehanna Company. They worked on the lands in partnership, the same lying on both sides of the Susquehanna River, until 1790, when it was agreed that Matthewson, who had a house on the west side of the river, should occupy the land before held in common, on that side, and become the tenant of Satterlee for his portion of the land on the said west side of the river, and Elisha Satterlee moved on the lands on the east side, on precisely the same terms; that is that he should become the tenant of Matthewson for his portion of the land on the said east side of the river. By this arrangement each became possessed in severalty of the particular portion of the lands thus allotted to him, and the tenant to the other of portions of the land before held in common, and it was expressly agreed that either of the parties might put an end to the tenancy at the end of anyone year, and in that case each was to be put into possession of his own lands.

In 1805, Elisha Matthewson died, having bequeathed by his will to his widow during life and to his children after her death the interest he had in the said land. Elisha Satterlee repeatedly, after Matthewson's death, acknowledged the original bargain and that he was a tenant of Matthewson's part, but he wished to buy it; he wished to give other lands for it, &c., but his sister could only sell for life, and her children were minors. In 1810, she built a house on part of the tract and put a tenant in it, but her brother would not give her possession of the part he had in cultivation. In 1811, she made application to the land office of

Page 27 U. S. 382

Pennsylvania, and on 7 January, 1812, took out a warrant in her name in trust for her children, and had the land surveyed, and obtained a patent for it from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She stated in her application an improvement made by her husband in 1785, and paid interest to the state on the purchase moneys from the date of the improvement. After his sister's warrant, survey, and return, Elisha Satterlee purchased a Pennsylvania title commencing in 1769, and consummated by a patent from the commonwealth in 1781, which he alleged covered the land in question, but he directed the deed to be made to his son, J. F. Satterlee, the plaintiff in error, and 1813 an ejectment was instituted in the name of the son against the father, in pursuance of a plan of the father's to release him from the situation of tenant to his sister. By a law of Pennsylvania then in existence but since repealed, a rule of reference might be entered the same day the writ was taken out, and by diligence a plaintiff might obtain a report of arbitrators, which had the effect of a judgment, before the return day of the writ.

This proceeding was, by means of the father's waiving all objections as to time and notice, so carried on as that the son not only had judgment, but a writ of possession before the return of the writ.

J. F. Satterlee then gave to his father a lease for life of the land for the consideration of one dollar. Elizabeth Matthewson instituted an ejectment. J. F. Satterlee, in 1817, procured himself to be entered co-defendant in the suit, and, his father being dead, is now sole defendant.

On the trial of the cause, the defendant made title under an application of John Stoner of 3 April, 1769. Stoner conveyed to Mr. Slough, who in 1780 conveyed to Joseph Wharton. A patent issued to Wharton in 1781, and he in April, 1812, conveyed to the defendant. The judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County instructed the jury that if they found the ejectment brought by the son of J. F. Satterlee, in whose name the conveyance was taken, was actually instituted by the father, though in his son's name as agent for himself, and that the suit was all a trick, and so

Page 27 U. S. 383

conducted on purpose to prevent his sister from interfering or being heard that he was still her tenant as much as if no such proceeding had taken place. But if the son was the real purchaser and the suit was instituted and conducted bona fide, and the lease to the father during life for a dollar a year was bona fide, that then E. Satterlee having been evicted by due course of law, might take a lease from him who recovered, and in that case the relation of landlord and tenant between him and his sister was at an end, and the cause must be decided upon the respective titles of the parties. But if they found him still a tenant, he could not set up against his landlord an adverse title, purchased during his life. But he must restore his possession to his landlord, and might then institute a suit on the title he had purchased, and if it was the best, recover from his former landlord. The verdict and judgment were for Mrs. Matthewson.

The case was removed by writ of error to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. On the argument of this cause before the supreme court, it was decided -- "That the relation between landlord and tenant could not exist between persons holding under a Connecticut title." And that court, in 1825, reversed the judgment of the common pleas and awarded a venire facias de novo.

Immediately after this decision, on 8 April, 1826, the Legislature of Pennsylvania passed an act, by which it was enacted

"That the relation of landlord and tenant should exist and be held as fully and effectually between Connecticut settlers and Pennsylvania claimants, as between other citizens of the commonwealth."

The ejectment depending in the Court of Common Pleas of Bradford County between the plaintiff in error and the defendant, again came on for trial after the law of April 8, 1826, on 10 May, 1826, and the judge gave in charge to the jury as follows, after stating the above recited act of assembly, to-wit:

"It is a general principle of law, founded on wise policy, that the tenant shall not controvert the title of his landlord and prevent the recovery of his possession by showing that the title of the landlord is defective. Among

Page 27 U. S. 384

the exceptions to this general rule, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has decided that when the landlord claimed (as the plaintiff claimed on the former trial of this cause) under a Connecticut title, the case should form one of the excepted cases. The legislature has thought proper to enact the above recited law, and by it we are bound. And if the plaintiff in all other respects should be found entitled to a recovery, the mere claiming through a Connecticut title would not now deprive her of her right to a recovery."

A verdict and judgment were obtained in favor of the defendant in error, Elizabeth Matthewson.

To the charge of the judge, which is inserted at large and sent up with the record, the defendant excepted, and the judge signed and sealed a bill of exceptions.

A writ of error was taken by the defendant to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and the following were among the errors assigned, to-wit:

The court erred in charging,

1. That by the laws of Pennsylvania, the plaintiff's testator could lease the land, and that the rights of landlord do extend to him, he having claimed under a Connecticut title.

2. That the Act of 8 April, 1826, gives a right of recovery, and does away the force of the law, as declared by the supreme court in this case.

On 1 July, 1827, the supreme court, after argument, affirmed the judgment of the court of common pleas. And on 6 July, 1827, a petition and prayer for reversal was filed by John F. Satterlee, the plaintiff in error, who survived Elisha Satterlee, on the ground that the said court had decided the said act of assembly to be constitutional and valid, though he had insisted that he ought not to be affected and barred of recovery by the said act, for that the said act was not valid, and was repugnant to the Constitution of the United States.

Page 27 U. S. 407

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