No. 192.

134 U.S. 338 (1890)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided March 17, 1890.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Morton Culver and Mr. Millard F. Riggle for appellant.

Mr. Charles E. Pope, Mr. Alexander McCoy and Mr. Chartes B. McCoy for appellee.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

Upon the 8th and 9th of October, 1871, a memorable conflagration destroyed a large part of the city of Chicago, including the court-house and the entire records of the county of Cook, in the State of Illinois, in which the city of Chicago was situated. An act was thereupon passed by the general assembly of that State, approved April 9, 1872, to remedy the evils consequent upon the destruction of public records. Laws Illinois 1871-2, p. 652, which act is now chapter 116 of the Revised Statutes of Illinois. 2 Starr and Curtis, 1993. That act provided that in case of such destruction, the courts of the county wherein it occurred, having chancery jurisdiction, should have power to inquire into the condition of any title to or interest in any land in such county, and to make all such orders, judgments and decrees as might be necessary to determine and establish said title or interest, legal or equitable, against all persons known or unknown, and all liens existing on such lands, whether by statute, mortgage, deed of trust or otherwise; that it should be lawful for any person claiming title to any lands in the county at the time of the destruction of its records, and for all claiming under such person, to file a petition in any court in the county having chancery jurisdiction, praying for a decree establishing and confirming his said title, which petition should set out the character and extent of the estate in the land in question claimed by the complainant or petitioner, and from whom and when and by what mode he derived his title thereto; the names of all persons owning or claiming any estate in fee in, or who should be in possession of, said lands or any part thereof, and also all persons to whom any such lands had been conveyed, and the deed or deeds of such conveyance recorded in the office of recorder of deeds since the time of destruction of the records and prior to the filing of the petition; and their residences, so far as the same were known; that all persons so named in the petition should be made defendants and notified of the suit by summons or publication in the same manner as required in chancery proceedings in the State, unknown owners or claimants to be brought in under the designation of "to whom it may concern;" that any person interested might oppose the petition, demur to or answer it, or file a cross-petition if he desired to do so; and that the decree entered in the proceeding should be, as to the title found, forever binding and conclusive, except against minors and insane persons, and persons in possession or to whom the lands had been conveyed and the deeds recorded since the destruction of the records and prior to the filing of the petition, and not made parties defendant by name. The act also contained various provisions in protection of married women, insane persons and minors, and all defendants not served with summons were given one year after entry of decree to ask its vacation on petition; and the rules and regulations governing courts of chancery in Illinois were declared to apply to proceedings under the act, so far as not inconsistent therewith.

By numerous decisions of the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois it has been determined that a petition to establish title under what is known as the "Burnt Records Act," need not show that the petitioner was in possession of the land or that it was vacant and unoccupied, as required in a bill to quiet title, the act authorizing the petitioner to make all parties in possession or claiming an interest in the land parties defendant to the petition, creating a clear and marked distinction between a case of this character and such a bill; that the court is authorized and required to investigate the interest of all the parties in the premises in question, and to decree in favor of the better title; that all that is required in respect to adverse claimants or their titles is, that such claimant shall be named in the petition and made defendant; that nothing more is required to give the court jurisdiction under the statute to investigate the claims of title to the premises, and by its decree establish and confirm the title in the person in whom it is found to be vested, and to make all such orders, judgments and decrees as shall be necessary to that end; that decrees so entered are, as to the title so found, foreyer binding and conclusive between the parties; that the statute was in effect a statute of limitations, and under the circumstances was not unreasonable, but demanded as a matter of safety in a great emergency; that it was not open to the objection of unconstitutionality, because not providing for trial by jury or otherwise; and that the question whether a jury should be allowed could not arise unless a jury was demanded. Gage v. Caraher, 125 Illinois, 447; Heacock v. Hosmer, 109 Illinois, 245; Heacock v. Lubuke, 107 Illinois, 396; Robinson v. Ferguson, 78 Illinois, 538; Bradish v. Grant, 119 Illinois, 606; Bertrand v. Taylor, 87 Illinois, 235.

The subject received much consideration from Judge Blodgett, holding the Circuit Court for the Northern District of Illinois, in Smith v. Gage, 11 Bissell, 217, 220, in which he announced substantially the same conclusions. And he remarks "that the court, on the final hearing of such a case, may, in its discretion as a court of equity, where two conflicting titles are presented, the validity of which can be determined in a court of law, by the express terms of its decree, remit the parties holding such titles to a court of law for the trial of their rights; but this would be purely a matter of equitable discretion, and does not limit the power of the court in this proceeding to settle the entire title by its decree." In Gage v. Caraher, ubi supra, the Supreme Court of Illinois says: "Whatever may be the power of the court of chancery, where there are controverted titles, to restore, by its decree, the evidences of title in the respective parties as they were before the destruction of the record, and then, in its discretion, remit the parties to a court of law to there try their titles, it is manifest no such course was contemplated by the statute, or necessary in cases under it." p. 452. In Ward v. Farwell, 97 Illinois, 593, 613, in passing upon the right to demand a trial by jury in the particular instance there in hand, it is justly observed: "Where a new class of cases are, by legislative action, directed to be tried as chancery causes, it must appear that, when tested by the general principles of equity, they are of an equitable character, and can be more appropriately tried in a court of equity than in a court of law. And if of this character, when brought in a court of equity they stand upon the same footing with other causes, and the court will have the right, as in other cases, to determine all questions of fact without submitting them to a jury."

Upon the construction of the constitution and laws of a State, this court, as a general rule, follows the decisions of her highest court, unless they conflict with or impair the efficacy of some provision of the Federal Constitution, or of a Federal statute, or a rule of general commercial law. Norton v. Shelby County, 118 U.S. 425, 439. And this is so where a course of those decisions, whether founded on statutes or not, have become rules of property within the State; also in regard to rules of evidence in actions at law; and also in reference to the common law of the State, and its laws and customs of a local character when established by repeated decisions. Burgess v. Seligman, 107 U.S. 20; Bucher v. Cheshire Railroad Company, 125 U.S. 555. Substantially conclusive effect is given to such decisions upon the construction of state statutes, as affecting title to real estate within the State. Ridings v. Johnson, 128 U.S. 212; Bacon v. Northwestern Insurance Co., 131 U.S. 258; Hanrick v. Patrick, 119 U.S. 156, 169.

And while the rule is thoroughly settled that remedies in the courts of the United States are at common law or in equity, according to the essential character of the case, uncontrolled in that particular by the practice of the state courts, New Orleans v. Louisiana Construction Co., 129 U.S. 45, 46, yet an enlargement of equitable rights by state statute may be administered by the Circuit Courts of the United States as well as by the courts of the State; and when the case is one of a remedial proceeding, essentially of an equitable character, there can be no objection to the exercise of the jurisdiction. Broderick Will Case, 21 Wall. 503, 520; Holland v. Challen, 110 U.S. 15, 25; Frost v. Spitley, 121 U.S. 552, 557.

Tested by the conclusions of the Supreme Court of Illinois, the principal contention on appellant's behalf cannot be sustained. The record of the patent and the deed from the patentee to Michael Gormley had been destroyed, and the deed, which it turned out on this hearing was in Gormley's possession, had never been re-recorded. The petitioner was entitled to the establishment of the record by the proceeding authorized under the statute, and, when the court had once acquired jurisdiction, it could go on and adjudicate upon all claims to the property in controversy, as therein provided. The character of the litigation sufficiently indicates that the petitioner legitimately invoked the aid of the statute.

It is strenuously insisted that the remedy at law was adequate, and that as the right of possession was purely a legal question and for a jury, the court of chancery should have declined jurisdiction; but, inasmuch as the case came within the provisions of the statute, and equity could alone afford the entire relief sought, the fact that legal questions were also involved could not oust the court of jurisdiction. The jurisdiction in equity attaches unless the legal remedy, both in respect to the final relief and the mode of obtaining it, is as efficient as the remedy which equity would afford under the same circumstances, Kilbourn v. Sunderland, 130 U.S. 505, 514; and it is quite clear that under this statute the restoration of the record title is a matter essentially of equitable cognizance, while the declaration of the invalidity of the ordinance of January 3, 1882, the removal of the cloud caused by recording a copy thereof, and the abatement of the obstruction to the streets, were matters in respect to which, under the averments of the petition and the evidence adduced at the hearing, the petitioner could properly resort to a court of equity. Undoubtedly the rule that a bill may be retained for the purpose of granting full relief when jurisdiction exists, should not be abused by being employed as a mere pretext for bringing into chancery causes proper for a court of law; but under the local law, this could not be predicated of a petition which the petitioner was entitled to file under the "Burnt Records Act," and, as already stated, we administer, where adverse citizenship gives us jurisdiction of a case, the equitable relief which state legislation accords.

It is objected that there was error in the direction for the removal of the buildings from the portion of Adams Street between blocks eight and nine, in disregard of the homestead rights of appellant and his wife; but we do not think so. Whether the plat was a statutory plat or not, as to which some issue is made by the answer, the proofs establish such a dedication as created an easement in the petitioner, the existence of which Gormley was estopped to deny, and which the court was justified in protecting. Maywood Co. v. Village of Maywood, 118 Illinois, 61; Zinc Company v. City of La Salle, 117 Illinois, 411; Littler v. City of Lincoln, 106 Illinois, 353; Hamilton v. Chicago, Burlington &c. Railroad, 124 Illinois, 235.

The right of way, as appurtenant to these blocks and lots, passed to the purchasers under the sale upon the trust deed, which was executed by Gormley and his wife, and by which both had released the homestead claim, and the decree recognized the fee as still in Gormley subject to the burden thus imposed. Trickey v. Schlader, 52 Illinois, 78; Kittle v. Pfeiffer, 22 California, 485.

As to the remaining errors assigned, we are of opinion that the court correctly held the second ordinance duly annulled, and the easement as existing in the petitioner, so far as respected the property described in the first of the two ordinances referred to, and properly granted the writ of assistance to put the petitioner into possession of his blocks and lots as prayed; and while the bill did not specifically pray for similar relief in respect to the streets in question, such relief was agreeable to the case made by the bill, and could be awarded as within the prayer for general relief. The writ of assistance was simply in effectuation of the decree, and was in accordance with the recognized practice in equity and the ninth equity rule. We are satisfied upon the whole case that the Circuit Court committed no error, and the decree will therefore be



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