Imagens da página
PDF
ePub

struction for which the plaintiff's counsel contend be the true one, the constitution will have imposed a restriction, in language indicating perpetuity, which every state in the union may elude at pleasure. The obligation of contracts in force, at any given time, is but of short duration ; and, if the inhibition be of retrospective laws only, a very short lapse of time will remove every subject on which the act is forbidden to operate, and make this provision of the constitution so far useless. Instead of introducing a great principle, prohibiting all laws of this obnoxious character, the constitution will only suspend their operation for a moment, or except from it preëxisting cases. The object would scarcely seem to be of sufficient importance to have found a place in that instrument.

This construction would change the character of the provision, and convert an inhibition to pass laws impairing the obligation of contracts into an inhibition to pass retrospective laws. Had this been the intention of the convention, is it not reasonable to believe that it would have been so expressed ? Had the intention been to confine the restriction to laws which were retrospective in their operation, language could have been found, and would have been used, to convey this idea. The very word would have occurred to the framers of the instrument, and we should have, probably, found it in the clause. Instead of the general prohibition to pass any “ law impairing the obligation of contracts,” the prohibition would have been to the passage of any retrospective law. Or, if the intention had been not to embrace all retrospective laws, but those only which related to contracts, still the word would have been introduced, and the state legislatures would have been forbidden “to pass any retrospective law impairing the obligation of contracts,” or “ to pass any law impairing the obligation of any contracts previously made.” Words which directly and plainly express the cardinal intent always present themselves to those who are preparing an important instrument, and will always be used by them. Undoubtedly, there is an imperfection in human language, which often exposes the same sentence to different constructions. But it is rare, indeed, for a person of clear and distinct perceptions, intending to convey one principal idea, so to express himself as to leave any doubt respecting that idea. It may be uncertain, whether his words comprehend other things not immediately in his mind; but it can seldom be uncertain, whether he intends the particular thing to which his mind is specially directed. If the mind of the convention, in framing this prohibition, had been directed, not generally to the operation of laws upon the obligation of contracts, but particularly to their retrospective operation, it is scarcely conceivable that some word would not have been used indicating this idea. In instruments prepared on great consideration, general terms, comprehending a whole subject, are seldom employed to designate a particular, we might say a minute, portion of that subject. The general language of the clause is such as might be suggested by a general intent to prohibit state legislation on the subject to which that language is applied, — the obligation of contracts; not such as would be suggested by a particular intent to prohibit retrospective legislation.

It is also worthy of consideration, that those laws, which had effected all that mischief the constitution intended to prevent, were prospective, as well as retrospective, in their operation. They embraced future contracts, as well as those previously formed. There is the less reason for imputing to the convention an intention, not manifested by their language, to confine a restriction, intended to guard against the recurrence of those mischiefs, to retrospective legislation. For these reasons, we are of opinion, that, on this point, the district court of Louisiana has decided rightly.

AFTER this general question was determined, came another, namely, Does a bankrupt law, which applies to contracts, made after its passage, between a citizen of the state where the law is passed, and the citizen of another state, impair their obligation ?

Upon this question, Mr. Justice Johnson thought with Marshall, Duvall, and Story, and gave the opinion of the court as follows:

Johnson, J. — I am instructed by the majority of the court finally to dispose of this cause. The present majority is not the same which determined the general question on the constitutionality of state insolvent laws, with reference to the viola-, tion of the obligation of contracts. I now stand united with the minority on the former question, and, therefore, feel it due to myself and the community to maintain my consistency.

The question now to be considered is, whether a discharge of a debtor under a state insolvent law would be valid against a creditor or citizen of another state, who has never voluntarily subjected himself to the state laws, otherwise than by the origin of his contract.

As between its own citizens, whatever be the origin of the contract, there is now no question to be made on the effect of such a discharge ; nor is it to be questioned, that a discharge not valid under the constitution in the courts of the United States is equally invalid in the state courts. The question to be considered goes to the invalidity of the discharge altogether, and, therefore, steers clear of that provision in the constitution which purports to give validity in every state to the records, judicial proceedings, &c., of each state.

The question now to be considered was anticipated in the case of Sturges v. Crowninshield, when the court, in the close of the opinion delivered, declared that it means to confine its views to the case then under consideration, and not to commit itself as to those in which the interests and rights of a citizen of another state are implicated.

The question is one partly international, partly constitutional. My opinion on the subject is briefly this : that the provision in the constitution, which gives the power to the general government to establish tribunals of its own in every state, in order that the citizens of other states or sovereignties might therein

prosecute their rights under the jurisdiction of the United States, had for its object an harmonious distribution of justice throughout the union ; to confine the states, in the exercise of their judicial sovereignty, to cases between their own citizens; to prevent, in fact, the exercise of that very power over the rights of citizens of other states, which the origin of the contract might be supposed to give to each state ; and thus, to obviate that conflictus legum, which has employed the pens of Huberus and various others, and which any one who studies the subject will plainly perceive it is infinitely more easy to prevent than to adjust.

These conflicts of power and right necessarily arise only after contracts are entered into. Contracts, then, become the appropriate subjects of judicial cognizance; and if the just claims which they give rise to are violated by arbitrary laws, or if the course of distributive justice be turned aside or obstructed by legislative interference, it becomes a subject of jealousy, irritation, and national complaint or retaliation.

It is not unimportant to observe, that the constitution was adopted at the very period when the courts of Great Britain were engaged in adjusting the conflicts of right which arose upon their own bankrupt law, among the subjects of that crown in the several dominions of Scotland, Ireland, and the West Indies. The first case we have on the effect of foreign discharges, that of Ballantine v. Golding, occurred in 1783, and the law could hardly be held settled before the case of Hunter v. Potts, which was decided in 1791.

Any one who will take the trouble to investigate the subject will, I think, be satisfied, that, although the British courts profess to decide upon a principle of universal law, when adjudicating upon the effect of a foreign discharge, neither the passage in Vattel, to which they constantly refer, nor the practice and doctrines of other nations, will sustain them in the principle to the extent in which they assert it. It was all-important to a great commercial nation, the creditors of all the rest of the world, to maintain the doctrine, as one of universal obligation, that the

assignment of the bankrupt's effects, under a law of the country of the contract, should carry the interest in his debts wherever his debtor may reside ; and that no foreign discharge of his debtor should operate against debts contracted with the bankrupt in his own country. But I think it perfectly clear that in the United States a different doctrine has been established; and since the power to discharge the bankrupt is asserted on the same principle with the power to assign his debts, that the departure from it in the one instance carries with it a negation of the principle altogether.

It is vain to deny that it is now the established doctrine in England, that the discharge of a bankrupt shall be effectual against contracts of the state that gives the discharge, whatsoever be the allegiance or country of the creditor. But I think it equally clear, that this is a rule peculiar to her jurisprudence, and that reciprocity is the general rule of other countries; that the effect given to such discharge is so much a matter of comity that the states of the European continent, in all cases, reserve the right of deciding whether reciprocity will not operate injuriously upon their own citizens.

Huberus, in his third axiom on this subject, puts the effect of such laws upon the ground of courtesy, and recognizes the reservation that I have mentioned; other writers do the same.

I will now examine the American decisions on this subject; and, first, in direct hostility with the received doctrines of the British courts, it has been solemnly adjudged in this court, and, I believe, in every state court of the union, that, notwithstanding the laws of bankruptcy in England, a creditor of the bankrupt may levy an attachment on a debt due the bankrupt in this country, and appropriate the proceeds to his own debt.

In the case of Harrison v. Sterry, (5 Cranch’s Reports, 298, 302,) a case decided in this court in 1809, upon full argument, and great deliberation, and in which all the English cases were quoted, it is expressly adjudged, “ that, in the case of a contract made with foreigners in a foreign country, the bankrupt laws of

« AnteriorContinuar »