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EUGENE LEITENSDORFER AND JOAB HOUGHTON, PLAINTIFFS IN ERROR, v. JAMES J. WEBB.

December 1, 1857

EUGENE LEITENSDORFER AND JOAB HOUGHTON, PLAINTIFFS IN ERROR,
v.
JAMES J. WEBB.



THIS case was brought up, by writ of error, from the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico. The facts of the case are stated in the opinion of the court. It was argued by Mr. Cushing and Mr. Gillet for the plaintiffs in error, and by Mr. Polk for the defendant. The counsel upon both sides argued the case upon its merits; but as it went off upon a question of pleading, these arguments are omitted.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. Justice Daniel delivered the opinion of the court.

This case is brought before this court upon a writ of error to the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico.

Upon the acquisition, in the year 1846, by the arms of the United States, of the Territory of New Mexico, the civil Government of this Territory having been overthrown, the officer, General Kearney, holding possession for the United States, in virtue of the power of conquest and occupancy, and in obedience to the duty of maintaining the security of the inhabitants in their persons and property, ordained, under the sanction and authority of the United States, a provisional or temporary Government for the acquired country. By this substitution of a new supremacy, although the former political relations of the inhabitants were dissolved, their private relations, their rights vested under the Government of their former allegiance, or those arising from contract or usage, remained in full force and unchanged, except so far as they were in their nature and character found to be in conflict with the Constitution and laws of the United States, or with any regulations which the conquering and occupying authority should ordian. Amongst the consequences which would be necessarily incident to the change of sovereignty, would be the appointment or control of the agents by whom and the modes in which the Government of the occupant should be administered–this result being indispensable, in order to secure those objects for which such a Government is usually established.

This is the principle of the law of nations, as expounded by the highest authorities. In the case of The Fama, in the 5th of Robinson's Rep., p. 106, Sir William Scott declares it to be 'the settled principle of the law of nations, that the inhabitants of a conquered territory change their allegiance, and their relation to their former sovereign is dissolved; but their relations to each other, and their rights of property not taken from them by the orders of the conqueror, remain undisturbed.' So, too, it is laid down by Vattel, book 3d, cap. 13, sec. 200, that 'the conqueror lays his hands on the possessions of the State, whilst private persons are permitted to retain theirs; they suffer but indirectly by the war, and to them the result is, that they only change masters.' In the case of the United States v. Perchiman, 7 Peters, pp. 86, 87, this court have said: 'It may be not unworthy of remark, that it is very unusual, even in cases of conquest, for the conqueror to do more than to displace the sovereign, and assume dominion over the country. The modern usage of nations, which has become law, would be violated, and that sense of justice and right which is acknowledged and felt by the whole civilized world would be outraged, if private property should be generally confiscated and private rights annulled. The people change their allegiance; their relation to their sovereign is dissolved; but their relations to each other, and their rights of property, remain undisturbed.' (Vide also the case of Mitchel v. The United States, 9th 2b., 711, and Kent's Com., vol. 1, p. 177.)

Accordingly we find that there was ordained by the provisional Government a judicial system, which created a superior or appellate court, constituted of three judges; and circuit courts, in which the laws were to be administered by the judges of the superior or appellate court, in the circuits to which they should be respectively assigned. By the same authority, the jurisdiction of the Circuit Courts to be held in the several counties was declared to embrace, 1st, all criminal cases that shall not be otherwise provided by law; and, 2d, exclusive original jurisdiction in all civil cases which shall not be cognizable before the prefects and alcaldes. (Vide Laws of New Mexico, Kearney's Code, p. 48.) Of the validity of these ordinances of the provisional Government there is made no question with respect to the period during which the territory was held by the United States as occupying conqueror, and it would seem to admit of no doubt that during the period of their valid existence and operation, these ordinances must have displaced and superseded every previous institution of the vanquished or deposed political power which was incompatible with them. But it has been contended, that whatever may have been the rights of the occupying conqueror as such, these were all terminated by the termination of the belligerent attitude of the parties, and that with the close of the contest every institution which had been overthrown or suspended would be revived and re-established. The fallacy of this pretension is exposed by the fact, that the territory never was relinquished by the conqueror, nor restored to its original condition or allegiance, but was retained by the occupant until possession was matured into absolute permanent dominion and sovereignty; and this, too, under the settled purpose of the United States never to relinquish the possession acquired by arms. We conclude, therefore, that the ordinances and institutions of the provisional Government would be revoked or modified by the United States alone, either by direct legislation on the part of Congress, or by that of the Territorial Government in the exercise of powers delegated by Congress. That no power whatever, incompatible with the Constitution or laws of the United States, or with the authority of the provisional Government, was retained by the Mexican Government, or was revived under that Government, from the period at which the possession passed to the authorities of the United States.

Among the laws ordained by the provisional Government of New Mexico is one conferring upon creditors the right of proceeding by attachment in certain cases against their debtors, and prescribing the instances in which, and the modes by which, this remedy may be prosecuted.

This law is contained in what is called the Kearney Code, at p. 39, and is found under the title Attachments. Upon its provisions, the case under consideration was instituted; and those provisions, so far as they are pertinent to the questions before us, will now be examined.

By section 1st, it is declared that creditors, whose demands amount to fifty dollars or more, may sue their debtors in the Circuit Court by attachment in the following cases, to wit:

'1st. When the debtor is not a resident of this Territory.

'2d. When the debtor has concealed himself or absconded, or absented himself from his usual place of abode in this Territory, so that the ordinary process of law cannot be passed upon him.

'3d. When the debtor is about to remove his property or effects out of this Territory, or has fraudulently concealed or disposed of his property or effects, so as to hinder, delay, or defraud his creditors.'

It is under the third clause only of this first section of the attachment law, that this case has been or could have been instituted; since, by a recurrence to the affidavit made by the plaintiff in the attachment, it will be found to state, that Leitensdorfer & Co. have fraudulently disposed of their property and effects. By the second section of this law it is declared, that a creditor, wishing to sue his debtor by attachment, shall file in the clerk's office of the Circuit Court a petition or other lawful statement, with an affidavit of his cause of action, and a bond, with a condition to the latter to prosecute his action with effect, and without delay, and to refund all sums of money that may be adjudged to the defendant, and to pay all damages that may accrue to any defendant or garnishee, by reason of the attachment, or any process or judgment thereon.

The third section of this same statute provides, that the affidavit made by the plaintiff shall state that the defendant is justly indebted to the plaintiff, after allowing all just discounts, in a sum to be stated in the affidavit, and on what account; and shall also state that the affiant has good reason to believe, and does believe, the existence of one or more of the causes which, according to the provision of the first section, will entitle the plaintiff to sue by attachment. (See collection of the Laws of New Mexico, comprising the Kearney Code, p. 39.)

With the requisites of the aforegoing provisions of the statute, it appears, by the record, that the plaintiff below, the defendant in error ...


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