Webster v. Cooper
Annotate this Case
55 U.S. 488 (1852)
U.S. Supreme Court
Webster v. Cooper, 55 U.S. 14 How. 488 488 (1852)
Webster v. Cooper
55 U.S. (14 How.) 488
A will, executed in 1777, which devised certain lands in Maine to trustees and their heirs to the use of Richard the son of the testator for life, remainder, for his life in case of forfeiture, to the trustees to preserve contingent remainders; remainder to the sons of Richard, if any, as tenants in common in tail, with cross-remainders; remainder to Richard's daughter Elizabeth, for life; remainder to trustees to preserve contingent remainders during her life; remainder to the sons of Elizabeth in tail, did not vest the legal estate in fee simple in the trustees. The life estate of Richard, and the contingent remainders limited thereon, were legal estates.
No duties were imposed on the trustees which could prevent the legal estate in these lands from vesting in the cestuis que use, and although such duties might have been required of them relating to other lands in the devise, yet this circumstance would not control the construction of the devise as to these lands.
The devise to Elizabeth for life, remainder to her sons as tenants in common, share and share alike, and to the heirs of their bodies, did not give an estate tail to Elizabeth under the Rule in Shelly's Case. But upon her death, her son the party to the suit tools as a purchaser, an estate tail in one moiety of the land, as a tenant in common with his brother.
One of the conditions of the devise was that this party, as soon as he should come into possession of the lands, should take the name of the testator.
But as he had not yet come into possession, and it was a condition subsequent, of which only the person to whom the lands were devised over could take advantage, a noncompliance with it was no defense in an action brought to recover possession of the land.
The son, taking an estate tail at the death of Elizabeth, in 1845, could maintain a writ of entry, and until that time had no right of possession.
Consequently the adverse possession of the occupant only began then.
In 1848, the Legislature of Maine passed an act declaring that no real or mixed action should be commenced or maintained against any person in possession of lands
where such person had been in actual possession for more than forty years claiming to hold the same in his own right, and which possession should have been adverse, open, peaceable, notorious, and exclusive. This act was passed two years after the suit was commenced.
The effect of this act was to make the seisin of the occupant during the lifetime of Elizabeth adverse against her son, when he had no right of possession.
This act which thus purported to take away property from one man and vest it in another was contrary to the Constitution of the State of Maine as expounded by the highest courts of law in that state. And as this Court looks to the decisions of the courts of a state to explain its statutes, there is no reason why it should not also look to them to expound its constitution.
The facts are set forth in the opinion of the court.
Upon the trial in the circuit court, the demandant's (Webster's) counsel prayed the court to instruct the jury as follows:
"1. That the act of the Legislature of Maine of the year 1848, ch. 87, is not applicable to any case in which the title of the demandant had accrued before the passage of said act."
"2. That said act is not applicable to the present action, the same having been commenced before the passage of said act."
"3. That said act is void because it is in violation of the Constitution of the State of Maine, Art. 1, § 21, and because it is retrospective in its operation upon vested rights of the demandant."
"4. That said act is void because it is in violation of the Constitution of the United States as being a law impairing the obligation of contracts."
"5. That by the true and legal construction of the will of Florentius Vassall, said Elizabeth Vassall took only an estate for life in the demanded premises."
"6. That by the true and legal construction of the will of Florentius Vassall, the demandant took a remainder in tail male, as tenant in common with said Henry Edward Fox, in the demanded premises expectant on the life estate of said Elizabeth Vassall."
"7. That the demandant is not barred from recovering one undivided half of the demanded premises by the statutes of limitation of the states of Maine or Massachusetts, or any of them."
"8. That if the demandant shows a right to recover one undivided half of the demanded premises, he may recover the same under the writ in this case, although he therein demands the whole of said demanded premises."
"9. That it is not necessary, for the purpose of enabling the demandant to recover in this action, that he should have taken the name of Vassall."
"F. DEXTER and E. H. DAVEIS"
"Counsel for Henry Webster"
"But the honorable judges who presided at the said trial declined to give to the jury any of the said instructions so prayed for by the demandant's counsel, but on the contrary thereof, did instruct the jury that by the true and lawful construction of the said will of Florentius Vassall, no legal estate in the demanded premises or any part thereof was ever vested in the demandant, but that if the legal estate in the demanded premises was, and by force and effect of the said will, vested in any person or persons, it was thereby vested and continued to be in the trustees named in said will, viz., Lord Viscount Falmouth, Lord Viscount Barrington, and Charles Spooner, Esq., the survivors and survivor of them, and the heirs of such survivor; and that therefore the demandant could not maintain the present action to recover the same, and that it was therefore unnecessary to instruct the jury upon the other points mentioned in the demandant's prayer for instructions, whereas the said counsel for the demandant respectfully insist that the said judges ought not so to have instructed the jury, but ought to have instructed them upon the matters and in the manner prayed for by the said counsel as aforesaid, and they did therefore except in law to the said instruction and said refusal of the said judges, and inasmuch as the several matters aforesaid do not appear by the record of said verdict, the said counsel have made and tendered to the said judges this, their bill of exceptions, and pray that the same may be allowed."
"All which being considered and found conformable to the truth of the case, the presiding judge has allowed this bill of exceptions, and hath thereto put his seal this 28th day of April, in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty-one."
"[SEAL] LEVI WOODBURY, Ass.Jus.Sup.Court"