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Cunnius v. Reading School District, 198 U.S. 458 (1905)

Cunnius v. Reading School District

No. 165

Argued March 6, 1905

Decided May 29, 1905

198 U.S. 458


That the Fourteenth Amendment does not deprive the states of their police power over subjects within their jurisdiction is elementary, and, in determining the validity of a statute, the question before the court is not the wisdom of the statute, but whether it is so beyond the scope of the municipal government as to amount to a want of due process of law.

The right to regulate concerning the estate or property of absentees is an attribute which in its very essence belongs to all governments, to the end that they may be able to perform the purposes for which government exists, and, in the absence of restrictions in its own constitution, none of which exists in the State of Pennsylvania, is within the scope of of a state government; nor does the exercise of this power violate the Fourteenth Amendment by depriving the absentee of his property without due process of law in case he is alive when the proceedings are initiated.

Where the provisions of a state statute for administration on the assets of an absentee are reasonable as to the period of absence necessary to create the presumption of death, and create proper safeguards for the protection of his interests in case the absentee should return, it does not violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it deprives the absentee of his property without notice.

The Pennsylvania statute of 1885, Public Laws, p. 155, providing for the administration of the property of persons absent and unheard of for seven or more years is a valid enactment, and is not repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment because it deprives the absentee of his property without due process of law.

The Legislature of Pennsylvania, in 1885, adopted a law "relating to the grant of letters of administration upon the estates of persons presumed to be dead, by reason of long absence from their former domicil." Briefly, and in substance the act provided that, upon application made to the register of wills for letters of administration upon the estate of any person supposed to be dead on account of absence for

Page 198 U. S. 459

seven or more years from the place of his last domicil within the state, the register of wills shall certify the application to the orphans' court, and that said court, if satisfied that the applicant would be entitled to administration if the absentee were in fact dead, shall cause the fact of the application to be advertised in a newspaper published in the county once a week for four successive weeks, giving notice that, on a day stated, which must be two weeks after the last publication, evidence would be heard by the court concerning "the alleged absence of the supposed decedent, and the circumstances and duration thereof." After providing for a hearing in the orphans' court, the statute empowers that court, if satisfied by the proof that the legal presumption of death is made out, to so decree, and cause a notice to be inserted for two successive weeks in a newspaper published in the county, and also, when practicable, in a newspaper published at or near the place beyond the state where, when last heard from, the supposed decedent had his residence. This notice requires the absentee, if alive, or any other person for him, to produce to the court, within twelve weeks from the date of the last insertion of the notice, satisfactory evidence of the continuance in life of the absentee. If, within the period of twelve weeks, evidence is not produced to the court that the absentee is alive, the statute makes it the duty of the court to order the register of wills to issue letters of administration to the party entitled thereto, and such letters, until revoked, and all acts done in pursuance thereof and in reliance thereupon, shall be as valid as if the supposed decedent were really dead. Power is further conferred upon the orphans' court to revoke the letters at any time on proof that the absentee is in fact alive, the effect of the revocation being to withdraw all the powers conferred by the grant of administration. But it is provided that:

"All receipts or disbursements of assets, and other acts previously done by him [the administrator] shall remain as valid as if the said letters were unrevoked, and the administrator shall settle an account of his administration down to

Page 198 U. S. 460

the time of such revocation, and shall transfer all assets remaining in his hands to the person as whose administrator he had acted, or to his duly authorized agent or attorney: Provided, the said letters were unrevoked, and the administrator the title of any person to any money or property received as widow, next of kin, or heir of such supposed decedent, but the same may be recovered from such person in all cases in which such recovery would be had if this act had not been passed."

It is further provided that, before any distribution of the estate of such supposed decedent shall be made to the persons entitled to receive it, they shall give security, to be approved by the orphans' court, in such sum as the court shall direct, conditioned that, if the absentee

"shall, in fact be at the time alive, they will, respectively, refund the amounts received by each, on demand, with interest thereon; but if the person or persons entitled to receive the same is or are unable to give the security aforesaid, then the money shall be put at interest on security approved by said court, which interest is to be paid annually to the person entitled to it, and the money to remain at interest until the security aforesaid is given, or the orphans' court, on application, shall order it to be paid to the person or persons entitled to it."

After affording remedies in favor of the absentee in case the issue of letters should be subsequently revoked, the statute provides that the costs attending the issue of letters or their revocation shall be paid out of the estate of the supposed decedent, and that the costs arising upon the application for letters which shall not be granted shall be paid by the applicant. Public Laws 1885, p. 155.

The plaintiff in error, Margaret Cunnius, now Margaret Smith, whom we shall hereafter refer to as Mrs. Smith, prior to and at the time of the passage of this act, was domiciled in the State of Pennsylvania. In virtue of her right of dower in certain real estate of her husband, which passed to him from his deceased mother's estate, she became entitled to the annual interest during her life on the sum of $569.61. This debt was

Page 198 U. S. 461

assumed by john M. Cunnius, who acquired the real estate from which the right of dower arose, and was in turn assumed by the Reading School District in consequence of its acquisition from John M. Cunnius of the property. The school district paid the interest as it accrued to Mrs. Smith at her domicil in the City of Reading up to the first of April, 1888. In that year, she left her domicil in the City of Reading, and for nearly nine years -- up to March, 1897 -- she had not been heard from. At that date, her only son, who resided in Reading, alleging the absence of his mother for the period stated, and the fact that she had not been heard from, and the consequent presumption of her death, made application to the register of wills, under the statute to which we have just referred, for letters of administration. After the reference of the matter to the orphans' court, as required by the statute, and the making of the publication and compliance with the other requisites of the statutes, the letters of administration which the statute authorized were granted. Under the authority thus conferred, the administrator collected from the Reading School District the arrears of interest which had accrued on the right of dower of Mrs. Smith, from the date of the last payment made to her before her disappearance on April 1, 1888, down to the time of the appointment of the administrator. The administrator gave the school district a receipt and discharge. In 1899, Mrs. Smith sued the Reading School District in the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County to recover the arrears of interest which had been paid during her absence to the administrator appointed by the orphans' court. And the proof in the suit developed that, at the time the proceedings against her as an absentee were initiated, and when the administrator was appointed, she was living in Sacramento, California. The school district relied for its defense upon the payment of the interest made to the administrator and the discharge which that officer had given under the law. Mrs. Smith asserted that the proceedings in the state court and the receipt of the administrator furnished no protection

Page 198 U. S. 462

to the school district, because, as she was alive when the proceedings for administration were taken in the state court, those proceedings and the law which authorized them were repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. She, moreover, contended, even although there was power in the state to provide by law for the administration of the property of an absentee, the particular law in question was repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, as it did not provide for adequate notice, and because the law failed to furnish the necessary safeguards to give it validity. The case went to a jury upon legal points being reserved.

The trial court decided that Mrs. Smith was entitled to recover, because the Pennsylvania statute did not provide essential notice, and was therefore repugnant to the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The superior court, to which the case was taken, affirmed the action of trial court on the ground that, as Mrs. Smith was alive when the proceedings to administer her estate as an absentee were had, that administration was void and the statute authorizing it was repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment. 21 Pa.Super.Ct. 340. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, on appeal, reversed the judgments of the court below and decided that the statute was a valid exercise of the police power of the state, and therefore, both as to form and substance, was not repugnant to the Fourteenth Amendment. 206 Pa. 469.

Page 198 U. S. 467

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