1. A court of equity will not relieve against a judgment at law
where the party seeking its aid has been guilty of laches or
2. Whether the time which has elapsed since the discovery of the
fraud, set up as the ground of relief, be sufficient to bar the
remedy is a question to be determined by the sound discretion of
The facts are stated in the opinion of the Court.
MR. JUSTICE SWAYNE delivered the opinion of the Court.
This is an appeal in equity. The appellee filed the bill.
The decree of the court below was against the appellant.
In this Court, the grounds relied upon to sustain the decree
That the judgment sought to be enjoined was procured by the
fraud and conspiracy of the appellants, Jamison the county clerk,
and Moore the county treasurer;
That the judgment was founded in a large part upon warrants of
the county, issued pursuant to a fraudulent conspiracy of the same
parties, and in part upon warrants which were forged;
And that the payments upon the judgment were procured to be made
by the fraudulent misrepresentations of Langdon and Brown, through
Page 95 U. S. 158
On the 6th of September, 1865, Jamison acknowledged service of
mesne process in the case in which the judgment was recovered. It
is not denied that the acknowledgment rendered the service
sufficient in point of law, and warranted the court in giving the
judgment, if the fraud and conspiracy charged had no existence. The
allegations of the bill casting the imputation are explicitly met
and denied by the answers. This put the burden of establishing them
upon the complainant. There is no proof whatever in the record upon
The judgment was rendered by default in the Circuit Court of the
United States for the District of Iowa on the 25th of October,
1865, in favor of Langdon, against the county, for $6,259.32. It
was founded upon county warrants. Five of them were for the sum of
$1,000 each. The residue were for smaller sums, amounting in the
aggregate to less than $500. There is proof tending to show such
warrants had been issued fraudulently to a very large amount, and
there is some proof that the name of William S. Lee upon some of
the smaller warrants included in the judgment is not in his
handwriting. By whom it was written is not shown.
It appears also that warrant No. 86, for $1,000, embraced in the
judgment, was subsequently abstracted from the clerk's office. When
the testimony was taken, it was in the hands of a person in
Vermont. As it was clearly thus put in circulation when overdue,
the county can sustain no injury from it. A transcript of the
judgment, pursuant to the law of Iowa, was filed in the clerk's
office of the District Court for the county on the 29th of January,
1866. Moore and Jamison left the county in October, 1866. After
their departure, the sheriff, with process, made search for the
record of the proceedings of the supervisors, and for the county
seal. Neither was found. When last heard from, Jamison was reported
to have died in Texas. Moore was said to be living somewhere in the
interior of New York. His testimony was not taken by either
That fraud was perpetrated as to the issuing of warrants by
Jamison is very probable, and it may be that it extended to the
warrants here in question.
But however this may be, there is no proof of anything wrong on
the part of Brown or Langdon. Brown was examined,
Page 95 U. S. 159
cross-examined, and reexamined as a witness. He testifies that,
having sent the transcript of the judgment to the county to be
filed and getting no answer, he went there to see that it was done.
This brought him into contact with Jamison, and he thinks he saw a
man of the name of Moore. He says he never saw them at any other
time, and never had any other communication with either of them.
There is no other evidence upon the subject.
The counsel of Brown appeared before the supervisors on the 5th
of September, 1870, and asked that action be taken for the payment
of the judgment, and stated that it was rendered upon warrants of
The supervisors thereupon imposed a tax accordingly for the year
1870. A like tax was imposed on the 5th of September, 1871, for
that year. Under these assessments, there was paid upon the
judgment, on the 20th of June, 1871, the sum of $1,603.01, and on
the 15th of May 1872, $1,282.60. There is still in the hands of the
county treasurer, arising from these assessments, the further sum
of $1,892.45, applicable in the same way. In this connection also,
we find nothing in the case affording the slightest ground for any
imputation upon the counsel who appeared before the supervisors in
behalf of Brown, or upon Brown himself.
The power of a court of equity to relieve against a judgment
upon the ground of fraud in a proceeding had directly for that
purpose is well settled.
The power extends also to cases of accident and mistake. But
such relief is never given upon any ground of which the
complainant, with proper care and diligence, could have availed
himself in the proceeding at law. In all such cases he must be
without fault or negligence. If he be not within this category, the
power invoked will refuse to interfere, and will leave the parties
where it finds them. Laches, as well as positive fault, is a bar to
such relief. Duncan v. Lyon,
3 Johns. (N.Y.) Ch. 351;
Marine Insurance Co. v.
7 Cranch 332; Story, Eq.Jur., secs.
894-896; Bigelow on Estoppel 151; Freeman on Judgments, secs. 486,
489, 490, 495.
Passing by without remark the filing of the transcript in the
office of the county clerk, it is clear that on the 5th of
Page 95 U. S. 160
1871, the supervisors were expressly notified of the existence
of the judgment, and for what it was recovered. Notwithstanding the
large amount of spurious warrants known to have been issued, it
does not appear that those officers thereupon inquired, retained
counsel, or did anything else to procure information touching the
warrants upon which the judgment was founded.
On the contrary, upon the same day, they imposed a tax for the
payment of the judgment; and on the same day, one year later, the
second levy was ordered for the same purpose. It appears they
retained counsel at their session, in June, 1871, and, that upon
searching in the proper clerk's office at Des Moines, the warrants
in question could not be found. The search was made several times,
with the same result. The counsel apprised the supervisors of the
fact, and advised them that nothing could be done without the
warrants. When this announcement was made does not appear; but the
evidence shows that in the same month of June in which he was
retained the first payment was made upon the judgment. The second
payment was made a year later. The warrants were found in the
proper office in the fall of 1872, partly through the efforts of
the counsel of Brown, who thereupon notified the counsel of the
supervisors, and the warrants were placed in the hands of the
latter. The bill was not filed until at least half a year
The statute of limitations of Iowa of five years, perhaps, does
not apply, because the fraud, if it existed, was not known
sufficiently early. The statute could run only from the time of the
discovery. But a court of equity applies the rule of laches
according to its own ideas of right and justice. Every case is
governed chiefly by its own circumstances. Whether the time the
negligence has subsisted is sufficient to make it effectual is a
question to be resolved by the sound discretion of the court.
Sullivan v. Portland & Kennebec Railroad Co.,
94 U. S. 806
The facts in this connection to which we have adverted are
entitled to grave consideration.
"Nothing can call forth" -- a court of equity -- "into activity
but conscience, good faith, and reasonable diligence. Where these
are wanting, the court is passive, and does nothing.
Page 95 U. S. 161
Laches and neglect are always discountenanced, and therefore,
from the beginning of this jurisdiction there was always a
limitation of suits in this court." Smith v. Clay,
645. See also
Story, Eq.Jur., sec. 1520a
U.S., supra; 55 U. S.
14 How. 70; Walker v.
14 How. 584; Creath's
Administrator v. Simms,
5 How. 192; Bateman v.
1 Sch. & Lef. 201; Murray v. Graham,
Paige (N.Y.) Ch. 622; Callaway v. Alexander,
8 Leigh (Va.)
114; Powell v. Stewart,
17 Ala. 719; Riddle v.
13 Cal. 295.
The law of laches, like the principle of the limitation of
actions, was dictated by experience, and is founded in a salutary
policy. The lapse of time carries with it the memory and life of
witnesses, the muniments of evidence, and other means of proof. The
rule which gives it the effect prescribed is necessary to the
peace, repose, and welfare of society. A departure from it would
open an inlet to the evils intended to be excluded.
Upon the whole case, we are of the opinion that the county is
not entitled to the relief sought.
Decree reversed and cause remanded, with directions to
dismiss the bill.