Bronson & Soutter v. La Crosse & Milwaukee R. Co.,
68 U.S. 405 (1863)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bronson & Soutter v. La Crosse & Milwaukee R. Co., 68 U.S. 1 Wall. 405 405 (1863)

Bronson & Soutter v. La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad Co.

68 U.S. (1 Wall.) 405


An act of Congress (July 15, 1863) repealed all circuit court powers given to certain district courts of the United States. A subsequent statute (March 3, 1863) enacted,

"That in all cases wherein the district court had rendered final judgments or decrees prior to the passage of the act, said district court shall have power to issue writs of execution, or other final process or to use such other powers and proceedings as may be in accordance with law, to enforce the judgments and decrees aforesaid,"

anything in said Act of July 15, 1862, to the contrary notwithstanding.

l. Held:

I. That the district court acquired only such powers as might be necessary to insure the execution of any final process that it might issue -- that is to say, such powers as might be necessary to regulate and control its officers in the execution of their ministerial duties.

II. That the words "judgments and decrees," within the meaning of this act, were such judgments and decrees as disposed of the whole case, so that nothing remained to be done but to issue "final process."

III. That even if the statute in question conferred larger powers, and gave the court more general jurisdiction over its former cases, such court could not, pending an appeal by a party in whose favor it had decreed, exercise them on the application and in favor of such party, the Supreme Court, however, in order to guard against misconstruction, saying that where a decree had been rendered affecting property in litigation, the court below, being in custody of such property, had full power to adopt proper measures to protect it from waste or loss, and where a railroad was the property, reasonably to apply its revenues for its conservation, but not to appropriate them beyond this and among litigating parties.

2. In a case where this Court, after an examination of very voluminous records, did not doubt that the court below was acting upon a sincere conviction that it possessed full power and authority to make certain orders, which this Court now decided that it had made under a misapprehension of its powers, and without authority of law, and that it was influenced by a high sense of duty, and by what it believed to be for the best interests of all parties concerned, in what this Court characterized as "a most complicated, difficult, and severely contested cause," and that it needed but to be advised by the opinion of this Court, on a motion

Page 68 U. S. 406

which had been made for a writ of prohibition against it, the said court below, this Court, for the present, withheld the appropriate remedy giving its opinion that the court below had no jurisdiction, and was acting against law, with liberty to counsel to apply hereafter to this Court if necessary. CATRON, J., dissenting.

Bronson, along with one Soutter, had filed their bill in the District Court of the United States for the District of Wisconsin (the circuit court system not being at the time introduced into that region, but the district courts having circuit court powers), to foreclose a mortgage which had been given by the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad Company on a portion of their road, called the Eastern portion; the Milwaukee & Minnesota Railroad Company being also made defendants in the suit. The mortgage had been given to secure the holders of bonds which the former company had issued in large amounts. The evidence in the case was very voluminous, the issues complicated, and the cause severely contested. The court below had given to it patient investigation. On the 13th January, 1862, a final decree of foreclosure was entered in the said district court in favor of the complainants in the suit, and an appeal was taken by those complainants to this Court on the 17th of the same month. The Milwaukee & Minnesota Railroad Company also, one of the defendants in the suit, took a cross-appeal on the 14th of September following.

On the 12th of June, 1863, pending the above appeals, the district court entered an order in the cause of Bronson and Soutter against the companies &c., on the petition of a third company, the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company, not a party to the suit, directing a receiver, into whose hands the La Crosse & Milwaukee Railroad and its assets had been placed, on filing the bill for the foreclosure of the mortgage, to turn over the road, its appurtenances and rolling stock, to them, the petitioners, and also directing that this last-named company, subject to the orders of the court, should operate this eastern division of the road (the one covered by the mortgage), in connection with the western division, and further that the same company should, out of the revenues of

Page 68 U. S. 407

the road, keep the rolling stock in good order and condition, and defray all running expenses &c.

On the 5th day of October, 1863, another order was entered in the same cause, purporting to be on behalf of the appellants, directing that after disbursements of moneys arising from revenues of the Eastern division of the road to previous encumbrances and necessary expenses, the receiver pay to the holders of the bonds secured by the mortgage their proportionate share of the surplus, if any, all such payments to be credited on the decree of the court in the cause or on such decree as might be eventually made if the present decree should be reversed or modified, and on the 26th October another order was made directing the receiver to report, on the first Monday of January, the amount of moneys in his hands after paying previous encumbrances &c.

A motion was now made in this cause by the appellees in the first appeal, and appellants in the cross-appeal, to this Court for a writ of prohibition to the district court enjoining it against any further proceedings on the order of the 12th of June, and of the 5th and 26th of October. The motion was placed mainly upon the ground that the district court possessed no jurisdiction to entertain the motion or to make the orders, and that its proceedings are coram non judice and void.

The question involved the construction of two acts of Congress: the first passed July 15, 1862, [Footnote 1] the second passed March 3, 1863. [Footnote 2]

The first act provided for extending the circuit court system of the United States to the State of Wisconsin, and which included it in the Eighth Circuit. One section of this act -- the second -- provides that so much of any act of Congress as vests in the district courts of the United States (of which the district in question is one) the powers and jurisdiction of the circuit courts, be and the same is hereby repealed. Another section -- the third -- provides that all actions, suits, prosecutions, causes, pleas, process, and other

Page 68 U. S. 408

proceedings, relative to any cause, civil or criminal (which might or could have been originally cognizable in a circuit court), now pending in or returnable to the several district courts (of which the district in question is one), acting as circuit courts, on the first day of October next, shall be and are hereby declared to be transferable, returnable, and continued to the circuit courts &c.

[This Court had already held, at the last term, in a case in which the question arose, that the second section repealed in terms all the circuit court powers and jurisdiction of the district courts.]

The second of the two acts referred to was entitled "An act to enable the district courts of the United States to issue executions and other final process in certain cases," and provides

"That in all cases wherein the district courts had rendered final judgments or decrees prior to the passage of the act of 15th July, 1862, and which cases might have been brought in the circuit courts, the district courts shall have power to issue writs of execution or other final process, or to use such other powers and proceedings as may be in accordance with law, to enforce the judgments and decrees."

Against the motion it was argued that the act of July, 1862 -- the first act -- gave the district court, in terms, the right not only to issue writs of execution and other final process, but the right to use such "other powers and proceedings" as would enforce decrees which they had rendered prior to July 15, 1862; that the decree of foreclosure in this case was rendered prior to that date -- was made on the 13th of January preceding -- more, therefore, than six months prior; that it came accordingly within the very terms of the act.

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