WILLIMSON V. SUYDAM, 73 U. S. 723 (1867)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Willimson v. Suydam, 73 U.S. 6 Wall. 723 723 (1867)

Willimson v. Suydam

73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 723


1. A statute authorizing the chancellor of the state to discharge trustees named in a will (the purpose of the trust being to hold real estate and to pay the rents to a person named for life, and on his death to dispose of the fee to his children) and to appoint new trustees in their place is valid, it appearing that the act was passed with the knowledge and at the request of the original trustees.

2. The trustees having been discharged pursuant to the statute, it was competent for the legislature, by a supplemental act, to grant power to the chancellor to appoint as such trustee, in the place of those discharged, the devisee of the life estate and authorize him to execute the trust. Such discharge and substitution did not violate the obligation of a contract.

3. The first statute having authorized trustees to be appointed by the chancellor to divide, as soon "as conveniently may be," certain real estate which they held in trust for A. for life, remainder to his children, one moiety whereof -- the statute said -- shall be held by them to those uses, and the remaining moiety shall be subdivided by them into so many lots as they think most likely to effect an advantageous sale, the proceeds to be invested and the interest to be paid to tenant for life.

Held, the chancellor having made an order that the eastern moiety of the

Page 73 U. S. 724

estate should be sold, and a third act of assembly having authorized the trustee, under the order theretofore granted or any subsequent order either to mortgage or sell the premises which "the chancellor has permitted or may permit him to sell," that the power to partition the estate was not exhausted by the first partition into an eastern and western portion, and that the chancellor might permit the substituted trustee to sell the southern moiety instead of the eastern.

4. This would be so as an original question -- one however already settled by this Court in the case on former judgment. In addition, it would be to be taken to be so at all events, the question arising in this case on a statute which has been construed in that way by the highest court of the state which passed it.

The case was thus:

Mary Clarke, who died in 1802, devised certain land, now town lots in New York City to the Right Rev. Benjamin Moore his wife (the daughter of Mrs. Clarke), and a third person, Mrs. Maunsell, in trust, to receive the rents, to pay the same to her grandson, Thomas B. Clarke (a man, apparently, of improvident habits) during life, and upon his death to convey it to his issue, then living, in fee, and leaving none, then to Clement C. Moore in fee.

In May, 1811, Bishop Moore had become enfeebled in health. His son, on his father's behalf, in that month addressed a communication to the Diocesan Convention of the State of New York requesting it to appoint an assistant bishop for that diocese, wherein he stated

"that though the disease with which it had pleased Almighty God to visit him was somewhat mitigated, yet that it was impossible, he was assured, that he should ever be able to render or perform the duties of the episcopal functions."

Thereupon the convention appointed an assistant. In July following, the bishop was struck by paralysis, and grew weaker until he died in February, 1816.

In 1814, the Legislature of New York, on the application or Mr. Clarke -- who had at this time two children, a third afterwards born not having as yet come into being -- passed an act in which -- reciting that the trustees had agreed by

Page 73 U. S. 725

writing to all such acts as the legislature should deem proper to make for the benefit and relief of T. B. Clarke, and did desire that some other persons might be appointed trustees -- it was provided that the court of chancery, on his application, might "appoint one or more trustees to execute and perform the several trusts and duties" specified in the will in place of the testamentary trustees, "who are hereby discharged from the trusts in the said will mentioned," and further that the new trustees should "as soon as conveniently may be, partition and divide the land

"into two equal parts, one moiety whereof shall be held by them to the uses and upon the trusts declared in and by the said will, and the remaining moiety shall be subdivided by the said trustees into so many lots as they may think most likely to effect an advantageous sale thereof, and after having completed such subdivision, the said trustees are hereby authorized and required, within a convenient time thereafter, not to exceed six months, except at the request of the said Clarke, to sell and dispose of the said last subdivided moiety,"

the proceeds to be invested, the interest, excepting a certain portion, to be paid to Mr. Clarke, and the principal reserved for the trusts of the will.

In 1815, on the application of Mr. Clarke, a supplemental act was passed authorizing HIM

"to execute and perform every act in relation to the real estate, with like effect that trustees duly appointed under the said act might have done, and that HE apply the whole of the interest and income of the said property to the maintenance and support of his family and the education of his children,"

and further providing that

"No sale of any part of the said estate shall be made by the said Clarke until he shall have procured the assent of the chancellor to such sale, who shall, at the time of giving such assent, also direct the mode in which the proceeds of such sale shall be vested in the said Clarke as trustee, and further that it shall be the duty of the said Clarke annually to render an account to the chancellor or to such person as he may appoint of the principal of the proceeds of such sale only, the interest to be applied by the said Clarke in such manner as he may think proper for his use and

Page 73 U. S. 726

benefit and for the maintenance and education of his children."

In July, 1815, an order was made by the chancellor on the petition of Mr. Clarke authorizing him to sell and dispose of the eastern moiety of the estate, "to be divided by the line in the manner for that purpose mentioned in the said petition," the sales to be made under the direction of a master and the proceeds to be paid to the master and applied and invested according to the directions of the order.

In 1816, a third act was passed authorizing Clarke,

"under the order heretofore granted by the chancellor or under any subsequent order either to mortgage or to sell the premises which the chancellor has permitted or hereafter may permit him to sell, and to apply the money so raised, by mortgage or sale, to the purposes required by the chancellor, under the acts"

theretofore passed.

In March, 1817, the chancellor, upon the petition of Mr. Clarke, made an order that Mr. Clarke be authorized to sell the southern moiety of the said estate instead of the eastern moiety, as permitted and directed by the orders theretofore made, and further authorizing him to mortgage all or any part or parts of the said southern moiety of the said estate if in his judgment it would be more beneficial to mortgage than to sell the same, and to convey and parts of the southern moiety in satisfaction of any debts due from him upon a valuation to be agreed on between him and his respective creditors, provided that every sale and mortgage and conveyance in satisfaction that might be made by the said Clarke should be approved by one of the masters of the court, &c.

In October, 1818, Clarke executed a deed of twenty lots to one McIntyre. The consideration recited in the deed is the indebtedness of the grantor to the grantee "in a large sum of money," and $3,750 paid.

In this state of things, Clarke having died in 1826, leaving children, Mrs. Williamson and others, these all now brought suit against Suydam to recover two lots in the western moiety of the estate, as first divided, held by him under title from McIntire.

Page 73 U. S. 727

The court below held the title of the defendant good. The correctness of such view was now the matter here.

To understand the case better, it is necessary to state that these statutes and what was done under them had been the subject, previous to the present case, of consideration in the state courts of New York, as also in this Court. The present case itself had been here twice before.

Questions under the statutes first arose in the courts of New York in Sinclair v. Jackson, [Footnote 1] in which case the court declined to express an opinion respecting "the constitutionality of the laws, or the efficacy of the proceedings under them." The next case was Cochran v. Van Surlay, [Footnote 2] where the Court of Errors, by a much divided court, held, that the statutes were constitutional and that the proceedings shown in that case had been take in conformity to the statutes.

After this decision was made, proceedings under these statutes came before the courts of the United States, and on certificate of division were decided by this Court in Williamson v. Berry, [Footnote 3] Williamson v. Irish Presbyterian Congregation, [Footnote 4] and Williamson v. Ball. [Footnote 5]

This Court then decided various questions which arose respecting the conformity of the proceedings to the requisitions of the statutes. But the decision in Clarke v. Van Surley having been so far from unanimous, the majority of this Court thought that the questions might be examined anew, and their view was different from that of the majority in the state court. The present case, which, as already mentioned, had been here twice before, was first decided by the circuit court, and in conformity to the decisions of this Court just mentioned. Coming here again, [Footnote 6] the judgment was reversed on the ground that subsequently to the cases already referred to in this Court, the courts of New York had, in Towle v. Forney [Footnote 7] and Clarke v. Davenport, [Footnote 8] reiterated the decision in Cochran v. Van Surley, and thus by repeated decision had

Page 73 U. S. 728

established in a way which, by its unanimity, had fixed what was decided a law of property, which the federal courts must now enforce, whatever might be their own opinion or decision.

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