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U.S. Supreme Court

McKeen v. Delancy's Lessee, 9 U.S. 5 Cranch 22 22 (1809)

McKeen v. Delancy's Lessee

9 U.S. (5 Cranch) 22




Under the act of Pennsylvania of 1715, which requires a deed to be acknowledged before a justice of the peace of the county where the lands lie, it had been long the established practice before the year 1775 to acknowledge deeds before a Justice of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania. And although the act of 1715 does not authorize such a practice, yet, as it has prevailed, it is to be considered as a correct exposition of the statute.

Under the same statute, if a deed conveyed lands in several counties and was recorded in one of those counties, an exemplification of it was good evidence as to the lands in the other counties.

The only question was whether the exemplification of a deed from Allen to Delancy could be lawfully read in evidence at the trial.

This question arose upon the following case:

William Allen on 27 December, 1771, being seized in fee of the land in controversy, lying in Northampton County, by deed of bargain and sale of that date, conveyed the same to James Delancy and Margaret his wife in fee. The deed also conveyed real estate in the Counties of Philadelphia and Bucks, and was acknowledged by the bargainor in the City of Philadelphia on 7 December, 1772, before John Lawrence, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the Province of Pennsylvania, and recorded on 11 May, 1773, in the office of the Recorder of Deeds for the City and County of Philadelphia, but not recorded in the County of Northampton nor in the County of Bucks, nor in any other county in Pennsylvania, offices for recording deeds being established in the said Counties of Northampton and Bucks, according to law, from the date of the said deed to the present time.

The circuit court admitted the exemplification to be read in evidence, and the verdict and judgment were for the plaintiff below.

Page 9 U. S. 31

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court as follows:

This case depends entirely on the acts of the Legislature of Pennsylvania, respecting the registering of deeds.

The law of Pennsylvania on this subject had varied at different times, but as it stood in 1715, when the act passed which must decide this controversy, the recording of a deed was not necessary to its validity, but deeds might be enrolled, and an exemplification was testimony in all courts.

The act of 1715 established an office of record in

Page 9 U. S. 32

each county in which deeds were to be recorded, and declared an exemplification from the record to be as good evidence as the original. This act, however, does not make the recording of a deed essential to its validity.

To entitle a deed to be recorded, the act requires that it shall be acknowledged or proved "before one of the justices of the peace of the proper county or city where the lands lie."

In this case, the lands lie in different counties, and the deed was acknowledged before John Lawrence, one of the Justices of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, and was recorded in the office for the City and County of Philadelphia, in which a part of the lands lie. The land, however, for which this suit was brought lies in a different county.

The first question which presents itself in this cause is was this deed properly proved?

Were this act of 1715 now for the first time to be construed, the opinion of this Court would certainly be that the deed was not regularly proved. A justice of the supreme court would not be deemed a justice of the county, and the decision would be that the deed was not properly proved, and therefore not legally recorded.

But in construing the statutes of a state on which land titles depend, infinite mischief would ensue should this Court observe a different rule from that which has been long established in the state, and in this case the Court cannot doubt that the courts of Pennsylvania consider a justice of the supreme court as within the description of the act.

It is of some weight that this deed was acknowledged by the Chief Justice, who certainly must have been acquainted with the construction given to the act, and that the acknowledgment was taken before another judge of the supreme court. It is also recollected

Page 9 U. S. 33

that the gentlemen of the bar who supported the conveyance spoke positively as to the universal understanding of the state on this point, and that those who controverted the usage on other points did not controvert it on this. But what is decisive with the Court is that the judge who presides in the Circuit Court for the District of Pennsylvania reports to us that this construction was universally received.

On this evidence, the Court yields the construction which would be put on the words of the act, to that which the courts of the state have put on it, and on which many titles may probably depend.

The next question is was this deed recorded in such an office as to make the exemplification evidence?

Without reviewing all the arguments which have been urged from the bar or all the sections of the act, it may be sufficient to observe that this Court is satisfied that where a single tract of land is conveyed, the law requires the deed to be recorded in the office of the county in which the land lies; but if several tracts be conveyed, it appears to this Court that neither the letter nor the spirit of the act requires that the deed should be recorded in each county.

It is material in the construction of this act that the validity of the deed is not affected by omitting to record it. Though not recorded, it is still binding to every intent and purpose whatsoever. The only legal effect produced by recording it is its preservation, by making a copy equal to the original. The principal motive, then, for requiring that it should be proved before a justice of the particular county in which the land lies and recorded in that county is that which has been assigned at the bar. It is the additional security given by those provisions that a deed never executed might not be imposed on the recorder. This object is as completely obtained by placing the deed on the records of that county in

Page 9 U. S. 34

which one of the tracts of land lies as it could be if the deed conveyed no other tract. The verity of the deed is as completely secured in the one case as in the other.

It appears to the Court also to be within the letter of the law. This deed was unquestionably properly admitted to record in the office of the City and County of Philadelphia. It conveyed lands lying within that city and county, and on any construction of the act might be there recorded. The act then proceeds to say

"That the copies of all deeds, so enrolled, shall be allowed in all courts where produced, and are hereby declared and enacted to be as good evidence, and as valid and effectual in law, as the original deeds themselves."

The whole deed, then, is evidence by the letter of the act. The whole is a copy from the record. If the validity of the conveyance depended on its being recorded in the county where the land lies, then a deed might be good as to one tract and bad as to another. But the deed is valid though not recorded, and the question is whether the copy is evidence as to everything it contains. The execution of the deed is one entire thing, and is proved so as to admit the instrument to record. The copy, if true in part, is true in the whole, and if evidence in part, must, under the act and on the general principle that it is the copy of a record, be evidence in the whole.

There is no error in the judgment of the circuit court, and it is

Affirmed with costs.

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