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METCALF v. WATERTOWN.

decided: May 14, 1894.

METCALF
v.
WATERTOWN.



ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF WISCONSIN.

Author: Fuller

[ 153 U.S. Page 672]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

It will be perceived that the questions arising upon the

[ 153 U.S. Page 673]

     record in this case relate to the meaning, applicability, and validity of the first paragraph of section 16 of the Revised Statutes of Wisconsin of 1858, which, taken in connection with sections 1 and 14, barred "an action upon a judgment or decree of any court of record of any State or Territory within the United States, or of any court of the United States," in ten years. The contention of the plaintiff is that, under a proper construction of the paragraph, judgments or decrees of the courts of the United States sitting within the State of Wisconsin are not included therein, and that if this were not so, it would be so far unconstitutional. Defendant claims that such judgments or decrees plainly fall within the statute, no room being left for construction; and that it is valid as to suits on Federal judgments or decrees in the state courts, and therefore valid as to suits on such judgments or decrees in Federal courts, under the 34th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789.

By that section it was provided that "the laws of the several States, except where the Constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States shall otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in trials at common law in the courts of the United States, in cases where they apply;" and this was carried forward into section 721 of the Revised Statutes. And from the beginning this court has recognized statutes of limitations of actions, real and personal, as enacted by the legislature of a State, and as construed by its highest court, as rules of decision in the courts of the United States. Bauserman v. Blunt, 147 U.S. 647, 652, and cases cited.

McElmoyle v. Cohen, 13 Pet. 312, 327, is an early and leading case on the subject cited, and largely quoted from by counsel for defendant. The statute of limitations of Georgia involved in that case required "actions of debt upon judgments obtained in courts other than the courts of this State" to be brought "within five years next after the judgments shall have been obtained," and an action having been brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Georgia upon a judgment rendered in a court of the State of South Carolina, it was held that the statute could be pleaded

[ 153 U.S. Page 674]

     in bar thereof. Mr. Justice Wayne delivered the opinion of the court, and after stating that judgments recovered in one State "are record evidence of a debt, or judgments of record, to be contested only in such way as judgments of record may be, and consequently are conclusive upon the defendant in every State, except for such causes as would be sufficient to set aside the judgment in the courts of the State in which it was rendered;" but that a plea of the statute of limitations was "well settled to be a plea to the remedy, and consequently that the lex fori must prevail;" proceeded as follows: "It would be strange, if in the now well understood rights of nations to organize their judicial tribunals according to their notions of policy, it should be conceded to them in every other respect than that of prescribing the time within which suits shall be litigated in their courts. Prescription is a thing of policy, growing out of the experience of its necessity; and the time after which suits or actions shall be barred has been, from a remote antiquity, fixed by every nation in virtue of that sovereignty by which it exercises its legislation for all persons and property within its jurisdiction. This being the foundation of the right to pass statutes of prescription or limitation, may not our States, under our system, exercise this right in virtue of their sovereignty? Or is it to be conceded to them in every other particular than that of barring the remedy upon judgments of other States by the lapse of time? The States use this right upon judgments rendered in their own courts; and the common law raises the presumption of the payment of a judgment after the lapse of twenty years. May they not then limit the time for remedies upon the judgments of other States, and alter the common law by statute, fixing a less or larger time for such presumption, and altogether barring suits upon such judgments, if they shall not be brought within the time stated in the statute? It certainly will not be contended that judgment creditors of other States shall be put upon a better footing in regard to a State's right to legislate in this particular, than the judgment creditors of the State in which the judgment was obtained. And if this right so exists, may it not be exercised by a State's restraining

[ 153 U.S. Page 675]

     the remedy upon the judgment of another State, leaving those of its own courts unaffected by a statute of limitations, but subject to the common law presumption of payment after the lapse of twenty years? In other words, may not the law of a State fix different times for barring the remedy in a suit upon a judgment of another State, and for those of its own tribunals? We use this mode of argument to show the unreasonableness of a contrary doctrine. But the point might have been shortly dismissed with this safe declaration, that there is no direct constitutional inhibition upon the States, nor any clause in the Constitution, from which it can be even plausibly inferred that the States may not legislate upon the remedy in suits upon the judgments of other States, exclusive of all interference with their merits. It being settled that the statute of limitations may bar recoveries upon foreign judgments; that the effect intended to be given under our Constitution to judgments is, that they are conclusive only as regards the merits; the common law principle then applies to suits upon them, that they must be brought within the period prescribed by the local law, the lex fori, or the suit will be barred."

Reference is also made to Ross v. Duval, 13 Pet. 45, in which it was held that an act of the legislature of Virginia providing that judgments of any court within the State, when execution had not been issued, might be revived within ten years from that date by scire facias or action of debt thereon, and that when execution had been issued and not returned, other executions and proceedings on the judgment might be had within ten years and not after, was a statute of limitations and applicable to a judgment obtained in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Virginia. That was no more than applying to the judgments of the United States courts the same rule that applied to the judgments of the state courts, and in neither of these cases did the precise question arise presented in the case before us.

By the act of May 26, 1790, c. 11, 1 Stat. 122, and the supplement thereto of March 27, 1804, c. 56, 2 Stat. 299, now embodied in Rev. Stat. § 905, it is provided that the records and judicial proceedings, not only of the courts of any State, but

[ 153 U.S. Page 676]

     also of any Territory or of any country subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, authenticated as therein prescribed, "shall have such faith and credit given to them, in every court within the United States, as they have by law or usage in the courts of the State from which they are taken;" that is to say, such faith and credit as they are entitled to in the courts of the ...


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