WILLIAMS V. BRUFFY, 96 U. S. 176 (1877)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Williams v. Bruffy, 96 U.S. 176 (1877)

Williams v. Bruffy

96 U.S. 176


1. The Confederate States was an illegal organization, within the provision of the Constitution of the United States prohibiting any treaty, alliance, or confederation of one state with another, whatever efficacy, therefore, its enactments possessed in any state entering into that organization must be attributed to the sanction given to them by that state.

2. Any enactment, from whatever source originating, to which a state gives the force of law is a statute of the state within the meaning of the act regulating the appellate jurisdiction of this Court over the judgments and decrees of the state courts.

3. An enactment of the Confederate States, enforced as a law of one of the states composing that confederation, sequestrating a debt owing by one of its citizens to a citizen of a loyal state as an alien enemy is void because it impairs the obligation of the contract and discriminates against citizens of another state. The constitutional provision prohibiting a state from passing a law impairing the obligation of contracts equally prohibits a state from enforcing as a law an enactment of that character, from whatever source originating.

Page 96 U. S. 177

4. When a rebellion becomes organized and attains such proportions as to be able to put a formidable military force in the field, it is usual for the established government to concede to it some belligerent rights, but to what extent they shall be accorded to the insurgents depends upon the considerations of justice, humanity, and policy controlling the government.

5. The concession of belligerent rights to the Confederate government sanctioned no hostile legislation against the citizens of the loyal states.

6. Where property held by parties in the insurgent states as trustees or bailees of loyal citizens was forcibly taken from them, they may in some instances be released from liability, their release in such cases depending upon the same principles which control in ordinary cases of violence by an unlawful combination too powerful to be successfully resisted, but debts due such citizens, not being tangible things subject to seizure and removal, are not extinguished, by reason of the debtor's coerced payment of equivalent sums to an unlawful combination. They can only be satisfied when paid to the creditors to whom they are due or to others by direction of lawful authority.

7. De facto governments of two kinds considered: 1. Such as exists after it has expelled the regularly constituted authorities from the seats of power and the public offices and established its own functionaries in their places so as to represent in fact the sovereignty of the nation. As far as other nations are concerned, such a government is treated as in most respects possessing rightful authority; its contracts and treaties are usually enforced; its acquisitions are retained; its legislation is in general recognized; and the rights acquired under it are, with few exceptions, respected after the restoration of the authorities which were expelled. 2. Such as exists where a portion of the inhabitants of a country have separated themselves from the parent state and established an independent government. The validity of its acts, both against the parent state and the citizens or subjects thereof, depends entirely upon its ultimate success; if it fail to establish itself permanently, all such acts perish with it; if it succeed and become recognized, its acts from the commencement of its existence are upheld as those of an independent nation.

8. The Confederate government was distinguished from each kind of such de facto governments. Whatever de facto character may be ascribed to it consists solely in the fact that for nearly four years it maintained a contest with the United States and exercised dominion over a large extent of territory. Whilst it existed, it was simply the military representative of the insurrection against the authority of the United States; when its military forces were overthrown, it utterly perished, and with it all its enactments.

9. The legislative acts of the several states stand on different grounds, and so far as they did not impair or tend to impair the supremacy of the national authority or the just rights of citizens under the Constitution, they are in general to be treated as valid and binding.

This was an action of assumpsit for certain goods sold by the plaintiffs in March, 1861, to George Bruffy, since deceased,

Page 96 U. S. 178

brought against the administrator of his estate in the Circuit Court of Rockingham County, Virginia. The plaintiffs at the time of the sale were and still are residents of the State of Pennsylvania, and the deceased was then, and until his death, which occurred during the war, continued to be a resident of the State of Virginia.

The defendant pleaded the general issue and two special pleas, in one of which he averred in substance that Pennsylvania was one of the United States, and that Virginia was one of the states which had formed a confederation known as the Confederate States; that from sometime in 1861 until sometime in 1865, the government of the United States was at war with the government of the Confederate States; that on the 30th of August, 1861, the Confederate States enacted a law sequestrating the lands, tenements, goods, chattels, rights, and credits within the Confederate States and every right and interest therein held by or for any alien enemy since the 21st of May, 1861, excepting such debts as may have been paid into the treasury of one of the Confederate States prior to the passage of the law, and making it the duty of every attorney, agent, former partner, trustee, or other person holding or controlling any such property or interest to inform the receiver of the Confederate States of the fact and to render an account thereof, and, so far as practicable, to place the same in the hands of the receiver, and declaring that thereafter such person should be acquitted of all responsibility for the property thus turned over, and that any person failing to give the information mentioned should be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor; that on the 1st of January, 1862, this law being in force, the defendant's intestate paid over to the receiver of the Confederate States the amount claimed by the plaintiffs, and that by virtue of such payment he is discharged from the debt. The second special plea is substantially like the first, with the further averment that the debt due to the plaintiffs was sequestrated by the decree of a Confederate district court in Virginia, upon the petition of the receiver, who afterwards collected it with interest.

The plaintiffs demurred to these pleas, but the demurrers were overruled. The case was then submitted to the court

Page 96 U. S. 179

upon certain depositions and an agreed statement of facts. They established the sale and delivery of the goods, the residence of the plaintiffs and of the deceased during the war, and the payment by the latter of the debt in suit to the sequestrator of the Confederate government under a judgment of a Confederate district court. The court below gave judgment for the defendant, and the subsequent application of the plaintiffs to the Supreme Court of Appeals for a supersedeas was denied, that court being of opinion that the judgment was plainly right. Such a denial is deemed equivalent to an affirmance of the judgment so far as to authorize a writ of error from this Court to the Court of Appeals.

Page 96 U. S. 182

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