In construing a statute of limitations, it must, so far as it
affects rights of action in existence when the statute is passed,
be held, in the absence of contrary provision, to begin when the
cause of action is first subjected to its operation.
Hence, when a right of action accrued in 1851 and a statute of
limitations passed in 1859 barred all actions of its kind not
"commenced within two years next after the cause or right of such
action shall have accrued," held
that the cause of action
began to run from the date of the statute, and that suit might have
been brought any time within two years from that date, and
accordingly that the statute had not summarily cut off existing
rights, thus making itself unconstitutional.
In 1854, one Sohn, a citizen of Ohio, obtained a judgment in one
of the courts of the state named against a certain
Page 84 U. S. 597
Waterson. Soon after this, Waterson went to Kansas, and from
1854 became and remained a citizen of that state.
On the 10th of February, 1859, four years or more after the
judgment in Ohio was obtained, the Legislature of Kansas passed a
statute which enacted:
"That all actions founded on any promissory note, bill of
exchange, writing obligatory, bond, contract, judgment, decree, or
other legal liability made, executed, rendered &c., beyond the
limits of this territory shall be commenced within two years next
after the cause or right of such action shall have accrued, and not
This statute being on the statute book, and Waterson being now,
as already mentioned, a citizen of Kansas, Sohn, still a citizen of
Ohio, in 1870 sued him in the court below to recover the amount of
the judgment which he had obtained against him in Ohio, A.D.
The defendant pleaded the above-quoted statute of limitations of
the state of Kansas -- namely that the action did not accrue within
two years next before the commencement of the suit. The plaintiff
demurred to this plea, and upon this demurrer judgment was rendered
for the defendant.
The court below said:
"As the defendant was a resident of this state when the Act of
February 10, 1859, took effect, it is our opinion that the two
years' limitation therein provided began to run in favor of the
defendant as against the present cause of action from that period,
and that this action might have been brought at any time within two
years after that act went into operation. Not having been brought
within that period, it was barred. "
Page 84 U. S. 598
MR. JUSTICE BRADLEY delivered the opinion of the Court.
The plaintiff contends that the statute of Kansas cannot apply
to actions which accrued more than two years before its passage,
because it would cut them off and defeat them altogether, and would
thus impair the obligation of contracts.
A literal interpretation of the statute would have this effect.
But it is evident that the legislature could not have had any such
intention. The court below held that as the defendant was a
resident of Kansas when the act took effect, the time of limitation
began to run in his favor as against the present cause of action
from that period, and that the action might have been brought at
any time within two years afterwards, and not having been brought
within that period, it was barred. In other words, the court held
that the act was prospective in its operation, and affected
existing causes of action only from the time of its passage. This
seems to us a reasonable construction and one that prevents the
legislative intent from being frustrated. "Words in a statute,"
says Justice Paterson,
"ought not to have a retrospective operation, unless they are so
clear, strong, and imperative that no other meaning can be annexed
to them or unless the intention of the legislature cannot be
Page 84 U. S. 599
satisfied. [Footnote 1
And this rule is repeated by this Court in Harvey v.
it is said:
"It is rule of construction that all statutes are to be
considered prospective unless the language is express to the
contrary or there is a necessary implication to that effect."
The plaintiff contends that the application of this rule to the
statute in question would have the effect of restricting its
application to actions accruing after the passage of the act. But
this is not a necessary conclusion.
A statute of limitations may undoubtedly have effect upon
actions which have already accrued as well as upon actions which
accrue after its passage. Whether it does so or not will depend
upon the language of the act and the apparent intent of the
legislature to be gathered therefrom. When a statute declares
generally that no action or no action of a certain class shall be
brought except within a certain limited time after it shall have
accrued, the language of the statute would make it apply to past
actions as well as to those arising in the future. But if an action
accrued more than the limited time before the statute was passed, a
literal interpretation of the statute would have the effect of
absolutely barring such action at once. It will be presumed that
such was not the intent of the legislature. Such an intent would be
unconstitutional. To avoid such a result and to give the statute a
construction that will enable it to stand, courts have given it a
prospective operation. In doing this, three different modes have
been adopted by different courts. One is to make the statute apply
only to causes of action arising after its passage. But as this
construction leaves all actions existing at the passage of the act,
without any limitation at all (which, it is presumed, could not
have been intended); another rule adopted is to construe the
statute as applying to such existing actions only as have already
run out a portion of the statutory time, but which still have a
reasonable time left for prosecution before the statutory time
expires -- which reasonable time is to be estimated by the court --
Page 84 U. S. 600
all other actions accruing prior to the statute unaffected by
it. The latter rule does not seem to be founded on any better
principle than the former. It still leaves a large class of actions
entirely unprovided with any limitation whatever, or, as to them,
is unconstitutional, and is a more arbitrary rule than the first. A
third construction is that which was adopted by the court below in
this case, and which we regard as much more sound than either of
the others. It was substantially adopted by this Court in the cases
of Ross v. Duval
] and Lewis v. Lewis.
] In those cases, certain statutes of limitation
-- one in Virginia and the other in Illinois -- had originally
excepted from their operation nonresidents of the state, but this
exception had been afterwards repealed; and this Court held that
the nonresident parties had the full statutory time to bring their
actions after the repealing acts were passed, although such actions
may have accrued at an earlier period. "The question is," says C.J.
Taney (speaking in the latter of the cases just cited),
"from what time is this limitation to be calculated? Upon
principle, it would seem to be clear, that it must commence when
the cause of action is first subjected to the operation of the
statute, unless the legislature has otherwise provided."
It is true, that in the subsequent case of Murray v.
Court followed the decisions of the Supreme Court of Mississippi in
its construction of a statute of that state, and held that it
applied only to actions accruing after the statute was passed. But
that decision was made in express deference to those of the state
court, which were regarded as authoritative. In the present case,
we are not bound by any decisive construction of the state court on
United States v.
3 Cranch 413.
69 U. S. 2
38 U. S. 13
48 U. S. 7
56 U. S. 15