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Christianson v. King County, 239 U.S. 356 (1915)

Christianson v. King County

No. 67

Argued November 9, 10, 1915

Decided December 13, 1915

239 U.S. 356


Where it sufficiently appears from the bill that jurisdiction does not depend solely on diverse citizenship, but the controversy involves the construction of an act of Congress, the decision of the circuit court of appeals is not final, but an appeal lies to this Court under 241, Judicial Code.

As an organized political division of the United States, a territory possesses only such powers as Congress confers upon it, and the legislature of a territory cannot provide for escheat unless such provision is within the grant of authority.

A statutory authority to a territory to legislate upon all rightful subjects of legislation includes the right to provide by legislation for escheat for failure of heirs, and so held as to authority given by the Organic Act of Washington Territory.

The prohibition in the Organic Act of,Washington of 1853 against interference with the primary disposal of the soil had reference to the disposition of public lands of the United States, and did not limit the right of the territory to legislate in regard to the escheat of private property for failure of heirs.

Subject to the general scheme of local government defined by the Organic Act and the special provisions it contains, and the right of Congress to revise, alter, and revoke, the territorial legislatures have generally been entrusted with the enactment of the entire systems of municipal law of the respective Territories of the United States.

Escheat for failure of heirs has always been a familiar subject of legislation in the American commonwealths.

In determining the extent of the power to legislate delegated by Congress to a territory under the Organic Acts, and the validity of a series of acts of the territorial legislature, it is significant if none of such acts asserting legislative power during the entire period until statehood were ever disapproved by Congress.

Provisions for escheat for failure of heirs have proper relation to matters embraced in a law establishing probate courts and defining their jurisdiction, and so held that such provisions in the statutes of

Page 239 U. S. 357

Washington Territory are not invalid because the title of the probate act was not broad enough to cover escheats.

After reviewing the statute of Washington Territory in regard to jurisdiction of probate courts, held that the decree of the probate court involved in this case decreeing that the property of the intestate escheat to the county for failure of heirs was within its jurisdiction, and the decree properly disposed of the property.

Where the legislature has authority to establish its rule as to escheat, it also has power to suitably provide for the tribunals having jurisdiction and the procedure for determining whether the rule is applicable in particular cases, and if other proceedings are established, office found is not necessary to effect an escheat.

Under the law of the Territory of Washington, the property involved in this case escheated to the county in which it was situated.

The proceedings in the probate court terminating in a decree that the property of the intestate escheat to the county for failure of heirs being in accord with valid laws of the territory, even though informal, the decree was not void or subject to collateral attack.

The decree of the probate court attacked in this case having been entered in a proceeding in rem properly conducted with notice and opportunity to parties interested to appear, there was no deprivation of property without due process of law.

Where a court of competent jurisdiction, in a proceeding in rem under a valid statute, determines that there are no heirs to an intestate, the decree binds all the world, including heirs who failed to appear.

203 Fed. 894.

This is a suit, brought in 1911, to recover lands in the City of Seattle, County of King, State of Washington, and to quiet title. (See R. & B. Code, Washington, § 785.) The plaintiff claimed title as heir, and grantee of other heirs, of Lars Torgerson Grotnes, who died intestate in the County of King, Territory of Washington, in March, 1865. The defendant, the County of King, succeeded the County of King of the territory, which had control of the property pursuant to a decree of escheat which was passed by the probate court in May, 1869. The legislature of the territory had provided that, in case of the death of an intestate leaving no kindred, his estate should escheat to the county in which it was situated. Washington Laws,

Page 239 U. S. 358

1862-63, p. 262. Demurrer was filed to the amended complaint on the grounds (among others) that the complaint did not state facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action, and that the action had not been commenced within the time limited by law. The demurrer was sustained, and judgment dismissing the complaint was affirmed by the court of appeals. 203 F. 894.

After alleging title in fee in Lars Torgerson Grotnes, and the fact that he had acquired the land under the name of John Thompson (having changed his name to conceal his identity) through certain mesne conveyances from the grantee of the United States, the amended complaint set forth in detail the proceedings in the probate court, which may be summarized as follows: that, on March 26, 1865, the probate court, upon an informal request of H.L. Yesler and J. Williamson, assumed to appoint Daniel Bagley administrator of the estate of John Thompson, deceased, the order reciting that the decedent had died in the county, intestate, leaving property subject to administration; that, after certain intermediate proceedings, the administrator presented his petition on February 12, 1869, stating that no heirs at law had been found after diligent search, and praying that the administrator might be discharged and that, after due notice, the estate might be turned over to the county or such further order made as might be meet, and that, on May 26, 1869, after publication of notice for four weeks in a local newspaper, a final decree of distribution was entered which recited the proceedings and continued as follows:

"That said decedent died intestate in the County of King, Washington Territory, on the-day of March, A.D. 1865, leaving no heirs surviving him;"

"* * * *"

"There being no heirs of said decedent, that the entire estate escheat to the County of King, in Washington Territory. "

Page 239 U. S. 359

"Now on this 26th day of May, A.D. 1869, on motion of said Daniel Bagley, administrator of said estate, and no exceptions or objections being filed or made by any person interested in the said estate or otherwise;"

"It is hereby ordered, adjudged, and decreed that all the acts and proceedings of said administrator, as reported by this court and as appearing upon the records thereof, be, and the same are hereby, approved and confirmed, and that, after deducting said estimated expenses of closing the administration, the residue of said estate of John Thompson, deceased, not heretofore distributed, hereinafter particularly described, and now remaining in the hands of said administrator, and any other property not now known or discovered which may belong to the said estate, or in which the said estate may have any interest, be and the same is hereby distributed as follows, to wit: the entire estate to the County of King, in Washington Territory."

"* * * *"

"The following is a particular description of the said residue of said estate referred to in this decree, and of which distribution is ordered, adjudged, and decreed, to-wit:"

"1st. Cash, to-wit: $343.83 gold coin."

"2nd. And real estate, to-wit: one hundred and sixty acres of land on Duwamish River, in King County, W. T., more particularly described in a certain deed from Joseph Williamson and William Greenfield to John Thompson, dated January 19th, A.D. 1865, and recorded in Volume 1 of the records of King County, W. T., on pages 458, 459, and 460."

"Third. A lease of said land to John Martin, dated March 5th, 1866, on which the entire reserved remains due and unpaid."

"Dated May 26th, 1869."

It was alleged that this decree was null and void, that the probate court was wholly without jurisdiction to pass

Page 239 U. S. 360

upon the title to the land described or to declare it escheated; that all claims to the land by defendant, and all its acts relating thereto, had been under this assailed decree, and that the defendant had no instrument or judgment purporting to evidence any title in it; that neither the defendant nor any other authority had instituted any suit or proceeding before any tribunal for the purpose of having an escheat declared or its claim of title confirmed. The acts of the county in relation to the land were set forth, the tracts involved being described as the "King County Farm," "King County Hospital Grounds," "King County Addition to the City of Seattle," "King County 2nd Addition to the City of Seattle." The plaintiff did not seek to recover the lands which had been appropriated for railroad rights of way or highways, or that portion which had been sold to innocent purchasers, and it was also conceded that the county might retain the buildings and tangible betterments which it had placed upon the land, as stated.

At the outset, after alleging that the plaintiff was a subject of the King of Norway and that the matter in dispute exceeded in value the sum of $300,000, the amended complaint set forth that the controversy involved the construction of Amendments V and XIV of the Constitution of the United States, and of §§ 1851, 1907, and 1924 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, relating to the Territory of Washington.

It was further stated that the heirs of the decedent had no knowledge of his whereabouts or death until three years prior to the beginning of the action, and that the heirs, and particularly the plaintiff, had been diligent since receiving this information in searching for the proofs of the decedent's identity and of their relationship.

Page 239 U. S. 361

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