BROWN v. SMART

No. 163.

145 U.S. 454 (1892)

BROWN v. SMART.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided May 16, 1892.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Charles Marshall for plaintiff in error.

Mr. M.R. Walter and Mr. Charles A. Boston for defendants in error.


MR. JUSTICE GRAY, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

The principles which underlie this case are clearly established by the decisions of this court. So long as there is no national bankrupt act, each State has full authority to pass insolvent laws binding persons and property within its jurisdiction, provided it does not impair the obligation of existing contracts; but a State cannot by such a law discharge one of its own citizens from his contracts with citizens of other States, though made after the passage of the law, unless they voluntarily become parties to the proceedings in insolvency. Sturges v. Crowninshield, 4 Wheat. 122; Ogden v. Saunders, 12 Wheat. 213; Baldwin v. Hale, 1 Wall. 223; Gilman v. Lockwood, 4 Wall. 409. Yet each State, so long as it does not impair the obligation of any contract, has the power by general laws to regulate the conveyance and disposition of all property, personal or real, within its limits and jurisdiction. Smith v. Union Bank, 5 Pet. 518, 526; Crapo v. Kelly, 16 Wall. 610, 630; Denny v. Bennett, 128 U.S. 489, 498; Walworth v. Harris, 129 U.S. 355; Geilinger v. Philippi, 133 U.S. 246, 257; Pullman's Car Co. v. Pennsylvania, 141 U.S. 18, 22. In Denny v. Bennett, above cited, the law upon this subject was well summed up by Mr. Justice Miller, speaking for the court, as follows: "The objection to the extraterritorial operation of a state insolvent law is that it cannot, like the bankrupt law passed by Congress under its constitutional grant of power, release all debtors from the obligation of the debt. The authority to deal with the property of the debtor within the State, so far as it does not impair the obligation of contracts, is conceded."

A provision of the insolvent law of a State, that all conveyances, by way of preference, of any property within its borders, made by a citizen of the State, being insolvent, and within four months before the commencement of proceedings in insolvency, shall be void, is a usual and a valid exercise of the power of the State over property within its jurisdiction, as to all such conveyances made after the passage of the law, whether to its own citizens or to citizens of other States.

But even if it should be held that such a law could not invalidate such a conveyance so far as citizens of other States are concerned, it is clearly valid so far as it makes the conveyance an act of insolvency, sufficient to support an adjudication of insolvency, and the appointment of a trustee or assignee to take and distribute among creditors any property which may lawfully come to his possession. The State might enact that conveyances preferring particular creditors, if made in good faith, should be valid so far as concerned them, and yet provide that, so far as the debtor was concerned, the preference showed such a disregard of the rights of other creditors as would justify adjudging the debtor to be insolvent, and appointing a trustee or assignee to take possession of and distribute any property not included in the conveyance.

In the case before us the only plaintiff in error is the insolvent himself. The position taken by him in the court below, but not argued in this court, that the obligation of a contract with him has been unconstitutionally impaired, is clearly untenable, because the statute of the State was in existence when the contract was made, and the subsequent decision of the Court of Appeals was not a law, within the meaning of the provision of the Constitution which declares that no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts. New Orleans Waterworks v. Louisiana Co., 125 U.S. 18.

The only provision of the Constitution of the United States, now relied on by the plaintiff in error, is the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids any State to deprive any person of property without due process of law. But the plaintiff in error has been deprived of no right by the judgment below. There is no doubt of the validity of that judgment, so far as it adjudged him to be an insolvent and appointed an assignee to take possession of his property; and in any view he has no title or right in the property which was the subject of the conveyance in trust. If that conveyance was valid, the property belongs to the trustee for the benefit of the creditors named therein. If it was invalid, the property vested in the assignee in insolvency.

Whether the judgment below was ineffectual as against the trustee or the creditors named in the conveyance, either for want of notice or because the conveyance to them could not be set aside, or whether, on the other hand, that judgment was valid against them, because rendered in a proceeding in rem of which they were bound to take notice, is a question which could be presented by them only, and they are not parties to this writ of error. The plaintiff in error cannot invoke the judgment of this court upon the rights of persons under whom he does not claim. Long v. Converse, 91 U.S. 105; Ludeling v. Chaffe, 143 U.S. 301, 305.

Judgment affirmed.


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