The information alleged violations of numerous sections of the internal revenue laws, which it is not necessary to mention further than to say, that on its face it disclosed a case for a forfeiture under those laws of the property described in it, clearly within the jurisdiction of the court.
The precise question thus arising, is, whether the plaintiff in error acquired the legal title to the premises in controversy, by virtue of the deed from the sheriff of Union County, and the judgments and proceedings on which it was based.
These proceedings, so far as against the owner of the property they undertook to enforce the plaintiff's claim as a lien upon his interest in it, were in the nature of proceedings in rem, though not so, perhaps, in technical strictness, for they did not profess to conclude all the world. Such, particularly, was their nature in the cases under consideration, where the owner and builder were one person, and he was served with process only constructively, not actually, being presumably without the jurisdiction of the court. It was declared so to be in Gordon v. Torrey, 2 McCarter (15 N.J. Eq.) 112.
"The proceeding in such cases," said Mr. Justice Field, delivering the opinion of the court in Pennoyer v. Neff, 95 U.S. 714, 730, "though in the form of a personal action, has been uniformly treated, where service was not obtained and the party did not voluntarily appear, as effectual and binding merely as a proceeding in rem, and as having no operation beyond the disposition of the property, or some interest therein. And the reason assigned for this conclusion has been that which we have already stated, that the tribunals of one State have no jurisdiction over persons beyond its limits, and can inquire only into their obligations to its citizens when exercising its conceded jurisdiction over their property within its limits."
That jurisdiction is called into exercise judicially and attaches, as elsewhere stated in the same opinion (p. 727), "where property is once brought under the control of the court by seizure or some equivalent act. The law assumes that property
In Cooper v. Reynolds, 10 Wall. 308, 318, it is said by Mr. Justice Miller, delivering the opinion of the court, that, in such cases, where there is no appearance of the defendant and no service of process on him, "the case becomes, in its essential nature, a proceeding in rem," and that (p. 317), "while the general rule in regard to jurisdiction in rem requires an actual seizure and possession of the res by the officer of the court, such jurisdiction may be acquired by acts which are of equivalent import and which stand for and represent the dominion of the court over the thing and in effect subject it to the control of the court."
This may be by the levy of a writ, or the mere bringing of a suit. "It is immaterial," said this court by Mr. Justice McLean, in Boswell's Lessee v. Otis, 9 How. 336, "whether the proceeding against the property be by an attachment or bill in chancery. It must be substantially a proceeding in rem."
Indeed, so far as the proceedings in question sought to bind the land by enforcing the plaintiff's claim as a specific lien thereon, and to dispose of the premises in satisfaction thereof by a sale, they were substantially in rem, whether there was personal or merely constructive service of process upon the defendant owner. The kind of process and mode of service could be material only with reference to the nature of the judgment. He could be bound personally only by his coming or being brought personally within the jurisdiction of the court. But the land might be bound, without actual service of process
When, however, the proceedings were begun for the enforcement of the mechanics' liens against the premises in controversy, by the issuing of the summons and the filing of the declaration, the property over which the State court sought to exert its jurisdiction was in the actual custody and possession of the District Court of the United States for the District of New Jersey. It had been seized by an officer of the United States for an alleged offence against its laws. It was proceeded against as forfeited to the United States, and to declare and enforce that forfeiture judicially, it had been taken possession of by the court. This proceeding was undoubtedly in rem, and it is quite immaterial whether the law authorized an absolute forfeiture of the res, including all interests and estates in it, so as to overreach antecedent liens and adverse claims, or only of the actual interest of the owner charged with the violations of law at the time of the alleged offences. In either view, and for either purpose, the court had taken possession of the property itself, and that possession was necessarily exclusive. The res was thereby drawn into the exclusive jurisdiction and dominion of the United States; and, for the purposes of that suit, it was, at the same time, withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the courts of New Jersey. Any proceeding against it, involving the control and disposition of it, in the latter, while in that condition, was as if it were a proceeding against property in another State. It was vain, nugatory, and void, and as against the proceedings and judgment of the District Court of the United States, and those claiming under them, was without effect.
In this aspect, the case is directly within the rule of decision
And the same conclusion must prevail here, for although the sale under the judgments in the State court was not made until after the property had passed from the possession of the District Court by delivery to the purchaser at the sale under the decree, yet, the initial step on which the sheriff's sale depended — the commencement of the proceedings to enforce the mechanic's lien, asserting the jurisdiction and control of the State
But it is to be understood, as a qualification of what has been said, that we do not mean to decide that the plaintiffs in the actions in the State court might not, without prejudice to the jurisdiction of the District Court, commence their actions, so far as that was a step required by the mechanics' lien law of New Jersey, for the mere purpose of fixing and preserving their rights to a lien, provided, always, they did not prosecute their actions to a sale and disposition of the property, which, by relation, would have the effect of avoiding the jurisdiction of the District Court under its seizure. That was the course, under similar circumstances, adopted and sanctioned by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in Clifton v. Foster, 103 Mass. 233, where a petition to enforce a mechanic's lien, which, by statute, it was necessary to file within a fixed time in order to
This view, though decisive of the case and resulting in the affirmance of the judgment of the Circuit Court, proceeds upon assumptions the most favorable which can be indulged to the plaintiff in error. It is merely an application of the familiar and necessary rule, so often applied, which governs the relation of courts of concurrent jurisdiction, where, as is the case here, it concerns those of a State and of the United States, constituted by the authority of distinct governments, though exercising jurisdiction over the same territory. That rule has no reference to the supremacy of one tribunal over the other, nor to the superiority in rank of the respective claims, in behalf of which the conflicting jurisdictions are invoked. It simply requires, as a matter of necessity, and, therefore, of comity, that when the object of the action requires the control and dominion of the property involved in the litigation, that court which first acquires possession, or that dominion which is equivalent; draws to itself the exclusive right to dispose of it, for the purposes of its jurisdiction. It was in accordance with this principle that in Pulliam v. Osborne, 17 How. 471, this court confirmed the legal title of land to a purchaser under an execution upon a judgment
We, therefore, now determine that the plaintiff in error does not hold the legal title of the premises in controversy, as against the defendant in error, claiming under the marshal's sale and the decree of the District Court; and we decide nothing beyond that. The other questions, argued at the bar — whether the forfeiture decreed by the District Court operated to transfer the whole title of the premises against all claimants; whether, if it operated only upon the interest of the owner at the time the alleged offences were committed, subject to all valid liens then existing, nevertheless, those liens were transferred to the proceeds of the sale, and the claimants were bound at their peril to intervene in their own behalf in that proceeding; or, whether the sale, as made, passed the legal title, subject to all existing liens, including those sought ineffectually to be enforced by the proceedings under which the plaintiff in error claims; and whether, in that event, these may be enforced against the land or present owners, and if so, in what mode — we have passed by without considering, as not necessary to the decision of the case.
The judgment of the Circuit Court is affirmed.