1. A statute does not necessarily impair the obligation of a
contract because it may affect it retrospectively, or because it
enhances the difficulty of performance to one party or diminishes
the value of the performance to the other, provided that it leaves
the obligation of performance in full force.
2. A statute which requires the holder of a tax certificate made
before its passage to give notice to an occupant of the land, if
there be one, before he takes his tax deed does not impair the
obligation of the contract evidenced by the certificate.
Mary Curtis brought suit under a statute of Wisconsin to have
her title to a certain piece of land, which she claimed under a
deed made on a sale for taxes, established and quieted as against
Page 80 U. S. 69
The sale for taxes took place on the 11th day of May, 1865, and
she received a certificate stating the sale, and that she would "be
entitled to a deed of conveyance of said land in three years from
that date unless sooner redeemed according to law," by payment of
the amount bid, with interest and penalties; and accordingly, on
the 12th day of May, A.D. 1868, she received the deed which she now
sought to establish as the title to the land.
But the Legislature of Wisconsin, on the 10th of April, 1867,
] enacted that in
all such cases where land had been or should thereafter be sold for
taxes, and any person should have been in the actual occupancy or
possession of such land for thirty days or more within six months
preceding the time when the deed should be applied for, the deed
should not be issued unless a written notice should have been
served on the owner or occupant by the holder of the tax
certificate at least three months prior thereto. The act required
that this notice should set forth a copy of the certificate and
state who was the holder and the time when the deed would be
In the present case, there was such occupancy and no notice was
served, and the court held that tax deed void for want of it,
overruling the objection of plaintiff that the statute requiring
notice was void as applied to her case because it impaired the
obligation of her contract evidenced by the certificate of
The case having thus gone against the plaintiff, she brought the
case here, setting up the same point that she set up below.
Page 80 U. S. 70
MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the Court.
Did the requirement of the statute of the 10th of April, 1867,
that the holder of a certificate of tax sale should give notice to
whoever might be found in possession of the land before taking a
deed impair the obligation of the contract made at the sale?
It must be conceded by all who are familiar with the vast
disproportion between the value of the land and the sum for which
it is usually bid off at such sales, and the frequency with which
the whole proceeding is conducted to the making of the conveyance
intended to pass the title without any knowledge on the part of the
real owner, that the requirement is an eminently just and proper
one. Nor is it one difficult to comply with, as it is only made
necessary where someone is found on the land, on whom the notice
can be served, and the cost of serving the notice must be paid by
any party offering to redeem.
That a statute is not void because it is retrospective has been
repeatedly held by this Court, and the feature of the act of 1867,
which makes it applicable to certificates already issued for tax
sales, does not of itself conflict with the Constitution of the
United States. Nor does every statute which affects the value of a
contract impair its obligation. It is one of the contingencies to
which parties look now in making a large class of contracts, that
they may be affected in
Page 80 U. S. 71
many ways by state and national legislation. For such
legislation demanded by the public good however it may retroact on
contracts previously made, and enhance the cost and difficulty to
performance, or diminish the value of such performance to the other
party, there is no restraint in the federal Constitution, so long
as the obligation of performance remains in full force.
In the case before us, the right of plaintiff to receive her
deed is not taken away, nor the time when she would be entitled to
While she had a right to receive either her money or her deed at
the end of three years, the owner of the land had a right to pay
the money and thus prevent a conveyance. These were the coincident
rights of the parties growing out of the contract by which the land
was sold for taxes.
The legislature, by way of giving efficacy to the right of
redemption, passed a law which was just, easy to be complied with,
and necessary to secure in many cases the exercise of this right.
Can this be said to impair the obligation of plaintiff's contract,
because it required her to give such notice as would enable the
other party to exercise his rights under the contract?
How does such a requirement lessen the binding efficacy of
plaintiff's contract? The right to the money or the land remains,
and can be enforced whenever the party gives the requisite legal
notice. The authority of the legislature to frame rules by which
the right of redemption may be rendered effectual cannot be
questioned, and among the most appropriate and least burdensome of
these is the notice required by statute.
In the case of Jackson v. Lamphire,
] this Court said:
"It is within the undisputed province of state legislatures to
pass recording acts by which the elder grantee shall be postponed
to a younger if the prior deed is not recorded within the limited
time, and the power is the same, whether the deed is dated before
or after the recording act. Though the
Page 80 U. S. 72
effect of such a law is to render the prior deed fraudulent and
void against a subsequent purchaser, it is not a law impairing the
obligation of contracts. Such, too, is the power to pass acts of
limitations, and their effect. Reason and sound policy have led to
the general adoption of laws of both descriptions and their
validity cannot be questioned. . . ."
"Cases may occur," says the Court,
"where the provisions of a law on those subjects may be so
unreasonable as to amount to a denial of a right, and call for the
intervention of the court; but the present is not one of them."
So we think of the case now under consideration, and we
Affirm the judgment of the state court.
Laws of Wisconsin of 1857, ch. 113, p. 111.
3 Pet. 290.