Green v. Biddle (1823) – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In Green v. Biddle (1823) 21 U.S. 1, the owners of certain lands is Kentucky sued their tenant to recover the lands.

The tenant relied on two Kentucky statutes which gave him a good defense to the action, and the owners responded that the statutes were invalid as violations of a compact between Kentucky and Virginia, ratified by Congress, which provided that "all private rights, and interests of lands within Kentucky derived from the laws of Virginia prior to the separation of Kentucky from Virginia, shall remain valid and secure under the laws of Kentucky, and shall be determined by the laws now existing in Virginia."

An argument was made that disputes concerning the compact could only be resolved by a commission to be appointed under the terms of the agreement, and not by the courts that would ordinarily resolve questions of title to land.

The Court rejected the argument because the possibility that one State could defeat the rights of the other's citizens or allow the occupants of the land to enrich themselves without title simply by refusing to appoint commissioners "is too monstrous to be for a moment entertained. The best feelings of our nature revolt against a construction which leads to it."(Id., at 91.)

The Court said:

"It is no answer, that the acts of Kentucky, now in question, are regulations of the remedy, and not of the right to lands. If these acts so change the nature and extent of existing remedies as materially to impair the rights and interests of the owner, they are just as much a violation of the compact as if they directly overturned his rights and interests."

Mr. Justice Washington, in delivering the opinion of the court, said: 'He is one who not only supposes himself to be the true proprietor of the land, but who is ignorant that his title is contested by some other person, claiming a better right to it. Most unquestionably this character cannot be maintained, for a moment, after the occupant has notice of an adverse claim, especially if that be followed by a suit to recover the possession. After this he becomes a mala fide possessor, and holds at his peril, and is liable to restore all the mesne profits, together with the land.' "

Mr. Justice Washington said, for the United States Supreme Court, in Green v. Biddle:

"Nothing, in short, can be more clear, upon principles of law and reason, than that a law which denies to the owner of land a remedy to recover the possession of it, when withheld by any person, however innocently he may have obtained it; or to recover the profits received from it by the occupant; or which clogs his recovery of such possession and profits, by conditions and restrictions tending to diminish the value and amount of the thing recovered, impairs his right to, and interest in, the property."

In the same case Mr. Justice Story said (at p. 12): "How can it be said to be any title at all which cannot be asserted in a Court of justice by the owner, to defend or obtain possession of his property?"

In Green v. Biddle, it was said:

"The objection to a law on the ground of its impairing the obligation of a contract can never depend upon the extent of the change which the law effects in it. Any deviation from its terms by postponing or accelerating the period of performance which it prescribes, imposing conditions not expressed in the contract, or dispensing with those which are, however minute or apparently immaterial in their effect upon the contract of the parties, impairs its obligation. Upon this principle it is that if a creditor agree with his debtor to postpone the day of payment, or in any other way to change the terms of the contract, without the consent of the surety, the latter is discharged, although the change was for his advantage."

Mr. Justice Washington, delivering the opinion of the court, said:

"It is no answer that the acts of Kentucky now in question, are regulations of the remedy and not of the right to the lands. If these acts so change the nature and extent of existing remedies as materially to impair the rights and interests of the owner, they are just as much a violation of the compact as if they directly overturned his rights and interests."