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of law, that the court thought, “if all other difficulties were out of the way, the equity of the general creditors to be paid their debts equally with the plaintiff, would be sufficient to induce the court to leave the parties where the law had placed them.” There has been a more recent case" on the subject, in the supreme court, in which, it has been said, “the main question was, whether a mistake of law was relievable in equity, it being stripped of all other circumstances.” It is admitted that mistake as to legal liability was the main ground on which the bill prayed for relief. But in the view which the court took of the case, we cannot concede that the subject of mistake was the main question, or that it was a material question, or even that there was any occasion for the court to consider it. In that case, a party had, in taking up a dishonored bill, included in the settlement ten per cent damages on the amount of it, under the belief, as was alleged, that such damages were required by a statute of Kentucky; but according to the construction subsequently put upon that statute, it did not cover this case. The party now sought to be relieved from the amount of damages thus included. A preliminary and vital question was, whether the damages had been paid;— whether the transaction, at the time the original bill was taken up, was to be regarded as an actual payment of the bill and damages, or merely as a renewal of the security. The court held it to be a payment. This opened the way for two consequences, either of which was fatal to the whole case. In the first place, though the court were of opinion that the damages in question could not have been demanded under the statute, yet they considered the bill as subject to damages and reëxchange by the law merchants, and said that, in the absence of any proof to the contrary, it must be presumed ten per cent. was a fair compensation. They thought, therefore, the plaintiffs had, at least, as high an equity as the defendant. Now, nobody supposes that money which is fairly and justly due, and which the other can honestly retain, can be recovered back, when once it has been paid. If, then, under such a state of facts, the money had been actually paid, there was an end of the case, at once. Another consequence of holding the transaction in question to be a payment, was, that as the bill in equity was not filed till more than eight years after that transaction, all remedy was, years before, irrecoverably gone, by the statute of limitation. Under these circumstances, admitting that there was a mistake, which, to say the least, is doubtful, we suppose that no mistake, whether of law, or of any thing else, could possibly help the defendant's case. The court, however, went into the subject of mistakes of law, and expressed themselves in terms sufficiently decided. But how, considering the language above quoted from the case referred to, they could have arrived at the conclusion, “that mere mistakes of law are not remediable, is well established, as was declared by this court in Hunt v. Rousmaniere, 1 Peters, 15,” we confess ourselves wholly unable to divine. In view of this case, it has been remarked, that “so far as the courts of the United States are concerned, the question may be deemed finally at rest.” If this be so, we cannot but regard it as exceedingly unfortunate, that an occasion for putting at rest a question confessedly so important, should have been sought in a case where there was so slight a demand for a decision of it. We will next notice the New York decisions on this subject. In Shotwell v. Murray,” the defendant having two judgments of different dates, sold the land of the debtor
* United States Bank v. Daniel, 12 Pet. 32. *1 Story, Eq. Jurisp. 154, note, (2d ed.)
under the junior judgment, and the plaintiff became the purchaser, though he knew, previously, of the existence of both the judgments. Afterwards, the defendant issued execution on the other judgment, and was proceeding to make a second sale of the land. The plaintiff filed his bill for an injunction, alleging that he purchased the land in full confidence that it would, by the first sale, be exonerated from all further lien by reason of the judgments in question. The bill was dismissed. Mr. chancellor Kent said, he assumed it as a settled principle of law and sound policy, that “a person cannot be permitted to disavow, or avoid the operation of an agreement, entered into with a full knowledge of the facts, on the ground of ignorance of the legal consequences which flow from those facts.” He, however, observed, that admitting all that was alleged, the mistake was only as to a collateral point, and, that the purchaser was seeking, under that pretence, not indeed to vacate the sale, but to divest the defendant of his rights;– a course of proceedings, certainly, which could claim no especial favor in a court of equity. Moreover, there does not appear to have been sufficient evidence of any mistake.
The case of Lyon v. Richmond' was, in no proper sense, a case of mistake of law. There a bill was filed for an injunction, on the ground that the plaintiffs had, by unfair and oppressive measures on the part of some of the defendants, been prevented from bringing a writ of error on a certain judgment, which there was reason to suppose, from a subsequent decision, would have been reversed, had a writ of error been brought. The question before the court would seem to have been, whether, as was alleged, there had been any unfair practices used. The chancellor said he had nothing to do with the question, whether the court would have reversed the decision, had a writ of error been
* 2 Johns Ch. 51.
prosecuted, but he proceeded to state, that “a subsequent decision of a higher court, in a different case, giving a different exposition of a point of law from the one declared and known when a settlement between parties takes place, cannot have a retrospective effect and overthrow such settlement.” This language is often quoted, and we admit fully its force and justness; but what, in particular, it has to do with mistakes of law, is not so obvious. The law we understand to be what the regularly constituted judicial tribunals have declared it to be ; and when it has been once expounded, that remains the law, until a different exposition has been given. The new exposition operates like the repeal of an old statute and the enactment of a new one; in which case, every deed is to be judged by the law in whose time it was done. The court took occasion to give some salutary cautions against mistaking the law, with a knowledge of which, it was said, every man is to be charged at his peril. The decree for dismissing the bill in this case, was reversed, by a bare majority, in the court of errors, on the ground that an unconscientious advantage had been taken of the circumstances of the plaintiffs." It has been said,” however, that this decision left untouched the doctrine of the chancellor, in respect to mistakes of law; which is very possible if the court confined themselves to the case before them. In Storrs v. Barker,” the defendant had brought an action of ejectment for certain land, which he claimed as heir at law of his daughter. This land, the daughter, a married woman, had, with the approbation of her father's family, devised to her husband, Foster, who after her death occupied the same, claiming under his wife's will, and finally sold it to the plaintiff, for a full and valuable consideration. The defendant repeatedly advised Foster to sell and the plaintiff to buy; told Foster he thought his title good under the will; and when asked, on behalf of Storrs, whether he did not claim the land by inheritance, replied in the negative. These are strong circumstances, in the face of which to attempt to turn another out of possession of land thus purchased, and peaceably enjoyed for several years. The defendant’s attention had been again and again directed to the subject, he was asked expressly, by one who had a right to know, whether he did not claim the land by the very title he afterwards set up; and then was the time for him to inform himself of his rights. In a case of this kind, it would be against all conscience to allow a man, on any pretence, unless fraud had been practised upon him, to dispossess another of the very property for which he had himself induced him to pay his money. It is worth noticing, that in this, which is the latest of the three cases, the chancellor qualified, very materially, the doctrine he had before expressed as absolute. “It is rarely,” he says, “that a mistake in point of law, with full knowledge of all the facts, can afford ground for relief;” and again, “ignorance of the law, with knowledge of the facts, cannot, generally, be set up as a defence.” Clarke v. Duches," was an action to recover back a small excess of rent, which, in ignorance of his rights, it was alleged, had been overpaid by the tenant, for a time running back somewhat beyond the memory of man. The court said that, since the last settlement, the plaintiff had not paid as much as he owed; and that the statute of limitations attached to all accounts prior to that time. This would seem to cover the whole ground. But though the court considered this view of the case conclusive, they thought proper, et abundante cautela, to go into a discussion
* Lyon v. Tallmadge, 14 Johns. 526. * Champlin v. Laytin, 18 Wend. 407. * 6 Johns. Ch. 166.