No. 41.

168 U.S. 90 (1897)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided October 18, 1897.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Frank E. Smith for plaintiff in error. Mr. Thomas F. Conway was on his brief.

Mr. T.E. Hancock, Attorney General of the State of New York, and Mr. William Henry Dennis for defendant in error.

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

On May 15, 1885, the legislature of New York, by the statute of 1885, c. 283, declared that all the lands then owned or thereafter acquired by the State of New York within certain counties (one of which was Franklin county) should constitute and be known as the forest preserve; and established a forest commission of three persons, styled forest commissioners, to "have the care, custody, control and superintendence of the forest preserve," and "to maintain and protect the forests now in the forest preserve, and to promote as far as practicable the further growth of forests thereon;" and authorized them to appoint a warden and other officers, and to exercise various powers to carry out its object.

At the date of the passage of that statute, the time allowed by law for the redemption of lands from sale by the comptroller for non-payment of taxes was two years from the time of sale. New York Stat. 1855, c. 427, § 50.

On June 9, 1885, the legislature of the State passed the statute of 1885, c. 448, to take immediate effect, which provided that all conveyances, thereafter executed by the comptroller, of lands, in the same counties, sold by him for non-payment of taxes and having been recorded for two years in the clerk's office of the county in which the lands lay, should, "six months after this act takes effect, be conclusive evidence that the sale and all proceedings prior thereto, from and including the assessment of the land, and all notices required by law to be given previous to the expiration of the two years allowed by law to redeem, were regular" and as required by law; but that all such conveyances and the taxes and tax sales on which they were based, should "be subject to cancellation, as now provided by law, on a direct application to the comptroller, or an action brought before a competent court therefor, by reason of the legal payment of such taxes, or by reason of the levying of such taxes by a town or ward having no legal right to assess the land on which they are laid."

The land now in question was sold by the comptroller to the State October 12, 1877; the time allowed by law for redeeming the land from that sale expired October 12, 1879; the comptroller's deed to the State was made June 9, 1881, and recorded June 8, 1882. It had therefore been on record for three years when the statute of June 9, 1885, was passed and took effect; and by the terms of this statute, on December 9, 1885, the comptroller's deed became conclusive evidence that there was no irregularity in the assessment of any of the taxes for non-payment of which the land had been sold and conveyed to the State. This action was brought April 11, 1887.

The statute, according to its principal intent and effect, and as construed by the Court of Appeals of the State, was a statute of limitations. People v. Turner, 117 N.Y. 227; Same v. Same, 145 N.Y. 451. It is well settled that a statute shortening the period of limitation is within the constitutional power of the legislature, provided a reasonable time, taking into consideration the nature of the case, is allowed for bringing an action after the passage of the statute and before the bar takes effect. Terry v. Anderson, 95 U.S. 628, 632, 633; In re Brown, 135 U.S. 701, 705-707.

The statute now in question relates to land sold and conveyed to the State for non-payment of taxes; it applies to those cases only in which the conveyance has been of record for two years in the office where all conveyances of lands within the county are recorded; and it does not bar any action begun within six months after its passage. Independently of the consideration that before the passage of the statute the plaintiff had had eight years since the sale, and three years since the recording of the deed, during which he might have asserted his title, this court concurs with the highest court of the State in the opinion that the limitation of six months, as applied to a case of this kind, is not repugnant to any provision of the Constitution of the United States.

It was argued in behalf of the plaintiff in error that the statute was unconstitutional, because it did not allow him any opportunity to assert his rights, even within six months after its passage. But the statute did not take away any right of action which he had before its passage, but merely limited the time within which he might assert such a right. Within the six months, he had every remedy which he would have had before the passage of the statute. If he had no remedy before, the statute took none away. From the judgments of the Court of Appeals in the case at bar, and in the subsequent case of People v. Roberts, 151 N.Y. 540, there would appear to have been some difference of opinion in that court upon the question whether his proper remedy was by direct application to the comptroller to cancel the sale, or by action of ejectment against the comptroller or the forest commissioners. But as that court has uniformly held that he had a remedy, it is not for us to determine what that remedy was under the local constitution and laws.

It was also argued that the plaintiff in error was in possession of the land and could not be put to his action. But the decision below that he was not in possession involved no Federal question, or any other question of law, but a mere inference of fact from the evidence, which this court is not authorized to review on writ of error. Dower v. Richards, 151 U.S. 658; Egan v. Hart, 165 U.S. 188.

Judgment affirmed.


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