Parsons v. Bedford, Breedlove & Robeson
28 U.S. 433 (1830)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Parsons v. Bedford, Breedlove & Robeson, 28 U.S. 3 Pet. 433 433 (1830)

Parsons v. Bedford, Breedlove & Robeson

28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 433

Syllabus

This action was instituted in the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana according to the forms and proceedings, adopted and practiced in the courts of that state. The cause was tried by a special jury, and a verdict was tendered for the plaintiff. On the trial, the counsel for the defendant moved the court to direct the clerk of the court to take down in writing the testimony o� the witnesses examined in the cause, that the same might appear on record, such being the practice of the state courts of Louisiana, and which practice the counsel for the defendant insisted was to prevail in the courts of the United States, according to the Act of Congress of 26 May, 1824, which provides that the mode of proceeding in civil causes in the courts of the United States established in Louisiana, shall be conformable to the laws directing the practice in the district court of the state, subject to such alterations as the judges of the courts of the United States should establish by rules. The court refused to make the order or to permit the testimony to be put down in writing, the judge expressing the opinion that the courts of the United States are not governed by the practice of the courts of the State of Louisiana. The defendant moved for a new trial, and the motion being overruled, and judgment entered for the plaintiff on the verdict, the defendant brought a writ of error to this Court.

Under the laws of Louisiana, on the trial of a cause before a jury, if either party desires it, the verbal evidence is to be taken down in writing by the clerk, to be sent to the supreme court to serve as a statement of facts in case of appeal, and the written evidence produced on the trial is to be filed with the proceedings. This is done to enable the appellate court to exercise the power of granting a new trial and of revising the judgment of the inferior court. Held that the refusal of the judge of the district court of the United States to permit the evidence to be put in writing could not be assigned for error in this Court, the cause having been tried in the court below and a verdict given on the facts by a jury; if the same had been put in writing and been sent up to this Court with the record, this Court, proceeding under the Constitution of the United States and of the amendment thereto which declares "no fact once tried by a jury shall be otherwise reexaminable in any court of the United States than according to the rules of the common law," is not competent to redress any error by granting a new trial.

The proviso in the Act of Congress of 26 May, 1824, ch. 181, demonstrates that it was not the intention of Congress to give an absolute and imperative force to the state modes of proceeding in civil causes in Louisiana in the courts of the United States, for it authorizes the judge to modify them so as to adapt them to the organization of his own courts, and it further demonstrates that no absolute repeal was intended of the antecedent modes of proceeding authorized in the United States courts under former acts of Congress; for it

Page 28 U. S. 434

leaves the judge at liberty to make rules by which discrepancy between the state laws and the laws of the United States may be avoided.

The act of Congress having made the practice of the state courts the rule for the courts of the United States in Louisiana, the district court of the United States in that district is bound to follow the practice of the state unless that court had adopted a rule superseding the practice.

Generally speaking, matters of practice in inferior courts do not constitute subjects upon which errors can be assigned in the appellate court.

The trial by jury is justly dear to the American people. It has always been an object of deep interest and solicitude, and every encroachment upon it has been watched with great jealousy. The right to such a trial is, it is believed, incorporated into and secured in every state constitution in the Union.

By "common law," the framers of the Constitution of the United States meant what the Constitution denominated in the third article, "law," not merely suits which the common law recognized among its old and settled proceedings, but suits in which legal rights were to be ascertained and determined, in contradistinction to those where equitable rights alone were regarded, and equitable remedies were administered, or where, as in the admiralty, a mixture of public law and of maritime law and equity was often found in the same suit.

The amendment to the Constitution of the United States by which the trial by jury was secured may in a just sense, be well construed to embrace all suits which are not of equity or admiralty jurisdiction, whatever may be the peculiar form which they may assume to settle legal rights.

It was not the intention of Congress by the general language of the act of 1824 to alter the appellate jurisdiction of this Court and to confer on it the power of granting a new trial by a reexamination of the facts tried by a jury, and to enable it, after trial by jury, to do that, in respect to the courts of the United States sitting in Louisiana, which is denied to such courts sitting in all the other states of the union.

No court ought, unless the terms of an act of Congress render it unavoidable, to give a construction to the act which should, however unintentional, involve a violation of the Constitution. The terms of the act of 1824 may well be satisfied by limiting its operation to modes of practice and proceeding in the courts below, without changing the effect or conclusiveness of the verdict of a jury upon the facts litigated on the trial. The party may bring the facts into review before the appellate court, so far as they bear upon questions of law, by a bill of exceptions. If there be any mistake of the facts, the court below is competent to redress it by granting a new trial.

This suit was originally brought in the Parish Court of New Orleans by the defendants in error by a petition for an attachment against the property of the defendant in the suit, and was removed into the District Court of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the defendant being a citizen of the State of Massachusetts.

The object of the suit was the recovery of the amount of certain sales of tobacco made by the plaintiffs to a certain

Page 28 U. S. 435

Eben Fiske, represented in the petition to be the agent and factor of the defendant, and for which he drew bills of exchange on the defendant, and which bills were refused acceptance and payment. After an answer had been filed, the case was submitted to a special jury and a verdict was rendered for the plaintiffs for $6,414.

The proceedings in the case were instituted and conducted according to the laws of Louisiana, which conform in a great degree to the principles and practice of the civil law.

On the trial, the plaintiffs produced the bills of exchange mentioned in the petition, and many letters written by the defendant to Fiske. The defendant introduced as testimony other letters written as above, and also the record of a suit brought by the plaintiffs against Fiske on the same bills in which they charge on oath that the sale was made to Fiske and that he was their debtor, all which written testimony was, according to the practice of the state courts, filed in court and forms part of the record.

The plaintiffs also produced Fiske as a witness to prove that he acted only as agent for the defendant, and to make him a witness, gave a full release of all claims on him. He was objected to, but the court overruled the objection and a bill of exceptions was tendered and signed.

By the twelfth section of an Act of the General Assembly of Louisiana passed 20 July, 1817, entitled an act "to amend the several acts passed to organize the court of the state, and for other purposes," it is among other things enacted

"That when any cause shall be submitted to a jury to be tried, the verbal evidence shall, in all cases where an appeal lies to the supreme court, if either party require it, and at the time when the witnesses shall be examined, be taken down in writing by the clerk of the court in order to be sent up to the supreme court to serve as a statement of facts in case of appeal, and the written evidence produced by both parties shall be filed with the proceedings."

By a law of the United States passed 26 May, 1824, the mode of practice pursued in the state courts is directed to be followed in the courts of the United States in Louisiana.

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Under the provisions of these laws, the defendant applied to the court to direct the clerk to take down the verbal proof offered in the cause or to suffer his counsel, the counsel of the plaintiffs, or the witnesses to take it down, which the judge refused to do, whereupon a bill of exceptions was tendered and signed.

A motion was made for a new trial which was overruled, and a judgment was entered for the amount of the verdict. This writ of error was then prosecuted.

The plaintiff in error contended:

1. That from the facts apparent on the record, the plaintiffs had no right of action against the defendant, and that therefore this Court will decree a judgment to be entered in favor of the defendant.

2. The Court will at least reverse this judgment and award a new trial for one or all of the following reasons:

1. Because the court refused the evidence to be put upon the record.

2. Because the whole question was a question of law, and the decision was against law.

3. It is not, strictly, a common law proceeding, but a proceeding under the peculiar system of Louisiana, and according to that system the court has power to reverse the judgment under circumstances which would not given it that power when the trial had been according to the common law.

Page 28 U. S. 441

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