MCELMOYLE V. COHEN, 38 U. S. 312 (1839)

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U.S. Supreme Court

McElmoyle v. Cohen, 38 U.S. 13 Pet. 312 312 (1839)

McElmoyle v. Cohen

38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 312


Although a judgment in the court of a state is not to be regarded in the courts of her sister states as a foreign judgment, or as merely prima facie evidence of a debt to sustain an action of debt upon the judgment, it is to be considered only distinguishable from a foreign judgment in this, that by the first section of the Fourth Article of the Constitution, and by the Act of May 26, 1790, sec. 1, the judgment is conclusive on the merits, to which full faith and credit shall be given when authenticated as the act of Congress has prescribed.

When the Constitution declares that full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state, and provides that Congress may by general laws prescribe the manner in which such acts, records, and proceedings shall be proved, and the effect thereof, the latter clause, as it relates to judgments, was intended to provide the means of giving to them the conclusiveness of judgments upon the merits, when it is sought to carry them into judgments by suits in the tribunals of another state. The authenticity of the judgment, and its effect, depend upon the law made in pursuance of the Constitution; the faith and credit due to it as the judicial proceeding of a state is given by the Constitution, independently of all legislation.

By the law of Congress of May 26, 1790, the judgment is made a debt of record, not examinable upon its merits, but it does not carry with it into another state, the efficacy of the judgment upon property, or upon persons to be enforced by execution. To give it the force of a judgment in another state, it must be made a judgment there, and can only be executed in the latter as its laws may permit.

The plea of the statute of limitations, in an action instituted in one state on a judgment obtained in another state, is a plea to the remedy, and consequently, the lex fori must prevail in such a suit.

Prescription is a thing of policy growing out of the experience of its necessity, and the time after which suits or actions shall be barred, has been from a remote antiquity fixed by every nation, in virtue of that sovereignty by which it exercises its legislation for all persons and property within its jurisdiction.

There is no constitutional inhibition on the states, nor any clause in the Constitution from which it can be even plausibly inferred that the states may not legislate upon the remedy on suits on the judgments of other states, exclusive of all interference with their merits.

A suit in a state of the United States on a judgment obtained in the courts of another state, must be brought within the period prescribed by the local law, the lex fori, or the suit will be barred. The statute of limitations of Georgia can be pleaded to an action in that state, founded upon a judgment rendered in the state court of the State of South Carolina.

In the payment of the debts of a testator or intestate in Georgia, the judgment of another state, whatever may have been the subject matter of the suit, cannot be put upon the footing of judgments rendered in the state, and it can only rank as a simple contract debt in the appropriation of the assets of the estate of a deceased person to the payment of debts.

William McElmoyle, a citizen of the State of South Carolina, suing for the use of Isaac S. Bailey, also a citizen of that state, presented a petition in 1835 to the Circuit Court of the United States, for the District of Georgia, stating that Levy Florence had died intestate, and having before his death resided in the State of South Carolina, he had obtained a judgment against him in the Court of Common Pleas for the City of Charleston, for $968.07, on a promissory note, on 16 February, 1822, which remains

Page 38 U. S. 313

unsatisfied; an exemplification of which judgment in due form was exhibited to the court with the petition.

The defendant, a citizen of Georgia, to which state Levy Florence removed after seven years from the rendition of the judgment, and in which state he resided at the time of his death, pleaded the statute of limitation of the State of Georgia, which the plea alleges limits such actions to five years from the cause of action, and he afterwards pleaded that there is no statute of the State of South Carolina which limits suits upon judgments therein to any particular time, nor is there any statute of limitations in that state applicable to judgments, but that a statute was passes by the Legislature of Georgia, on 7 December, 1805, which provides and declares that all actions of debt on judgment obtained in courts other than the courts of Georgia, shall be commenced and prosecuted within five years from the rendition of such judgment, and not afterwards, and that for seven years after the rendition of the judgment on which the suit is brought, Levy Florence was a resident and citizen of the State of Georgia, and on suit on the judgment was commenced against him, nor for two years after the defendant, John J. Cohen, had been the duly qualified administrator of the said Levy Florence. The defendant for further plea states that he has not funds of the estate of Levy Florence sufficient to pay the whole of the judgment and to pay the other debts claimed as due from the estate.

Upon the trial of the cause the following questions occurred, upon which the opinions of the judges were opposed, and the same were certified to the supreme court.

1st. Whether the statute of limitations of Georgia can be pleaded to an action in that state, founded upon a judgment rendered in the State of South Carolina?

2d. Whether in the administration of assets in Georgia, a judgment rendered in South Carolina, upon a promissory note, against the intestate when in life, should be paid in preference to simple contract debts?

Page 38 U. S. 324

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