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MUNICIPALITY PONCE v. ROMAN CATHOLIC APOSTOLIC CHURCH PORTO RICO.

decided: June 1, 1908.

MUNICIPALITY OF PONCE
v.
ROMAN CATHOLIC APOSTOLIC CHURCH IN PORTO RICO.



APPEAL FROM THE SUPREME COURT OF PORTO RICO.

Author: Fuller

[ 210 U.S. Page 303]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

This suit was brought under an act of the legislative assembly of Porto Rico, entitled "An act to confer original jurisdiction on the Supreme Court of Porto Rico for the trial and adjudication of certain property claimed by the Roman Catholic Church in Porto Rico," approved March 10, 1904, as follows:

Be it enacted by the Legislative Assembly of Porto Rico:

"SEC 1. Original jurisdiction is hereby conferred on the Supreme Court of Porto Rico for the trial and adjudication of all questions now existing or which may arise, between the Roman Catholic Church in Porto Rico and the people of Porto Rico, affecting property rights, whether real or personal or mixed, claimed by either party.

"SEC. 2. The Attorney General of Porto Rico shall be authorized to accept service for the people of Porto Rico of any citation, summons or other process issued by said court in said proceedings.

"SEC. 3. The Supreme Court, for the purpose of such trial and adjudication, shall have the right to issue process for witnesses and to receive and hear testimony, and the procedure in said court shall be the same, as near as may be, as that prescribed for the District Courts of Porto Rico in civil cases, and

[ 210 U.S. Page 304]

     the Supreme Court shall have full power to enter any and all orders and decrees that may be necessary to a final and full adjudication of all the claims of either party to the proceedings, and may issue all writs or process necessary to enforce the jurisdiction hereby conferred upon said court: Provided, that the Attorney General of Porto Rico shall at once prepare for such hearing and trial, and if the said Roman Catholic Church does not commence proceedings under this act within three months after its passage and approval, then, in that event, it shall be the duty of the Attorney General to commence said proceedings in behalf of the insular government.

"SEC. 4. After the issues have been fully submitted to said court upon the law and the facts, and after hearing the arguments of the respective parties, or their counsel, the court shall enter a final judgment and decree, fully determining the rights of either or both of the parties, and vesting the title to the subject-matter of the controversy, or any part thereof, in such party or parties, as the court may deem entitled thereto. The said court may issue any and all writs that may be necessary to place the parties in quiet possession of the property so adjudicated to them, or either of them. But nothing in this act shall be construed to limit the right of appeal, either of the people of Porto Rico or of the Roman Catholic Church, but either party may appeal from the final judgment or decree of said court to the Supreme Court of the United States, in the manner provided by law for appeals to that court generally.

"SEC. 5. Original jurisdiction is hereby also conferred on the Supreme Court of Porto Rico for the trial and adjudication of all questions now existing, or which may arise, between the Roman Catholic Church in Porto Rico and any municipality of Porto Rico, affecting property rights, whether real or personal or mixed, claimed by either party.

"SEC. 6. The mayor of any municipality within Porto Rico, wherein may be situated any property over which such questions exist, shall be authorized to accept service for the municipality

[ 210 U.S. Page 305]

     of any citation, summons or other process issued by said court in said proceedings.

"SEC. 7. For the purpose of such trial and adjudication and appeal, all the provisions of sections 3 and 4 of this act shall be deemed applicable.

"SEC. 8. This act shall take effect from and after its passage."

The power to confer this jurisdiction was derived from the act of Congress creating an organized government for Porto Rico, approved March 2, 1901, usually called the Foraker Act, c. 191, 31 U.S. Stat. 77.

Section 8 of this act provides:

"That the laws and ordinances of Porto Rico now in force shall continue in full force and effect, except as altered, amended, or modified hereinafter, or as altered or modified by military orders and decrees in force when this act shall take effect, and so far as the same are not inconsistent or in conflict with the statutory laws of the United States not locally inapplicable, or the provisions hereof, until altered, amended, or repealed by the legislative authority hereinafter provided for Porto Rico or by act of Congress of the United States."

It is further provided (§ 15):

"That the legislative authority hereinafter provided shall have power by due enactment to amend, alter, modify, or repeal any law or ordinance, civil or criminal, continued in force by this act, as it may from time to time see fit."

The paragraph relating to the judiciary is as follows (§ 33):

"That the judicial power shall be vested in the courts and tribunals of Porto Rico as already established and now in operation, including municipal courts, under and by virtue of General Orders, numbered 118, as promulgated by Brigadier General Davis, United States Volunteers, August 16, 1899, and including also the police courts established by General Orders, numbered 195, promulgated November 29, 1899, by Brigadier General Davis, United States Volunteers, and the laws and ordinances of Porto Rico and the municipalities thereof in force, so far as the same are not in conflict herewith, all of

[ 210 U.S. Page 306]

     which courts and tribunals are hereby continued. The jurisdiction of said courts and the form of procedure in them, and the various officials and attaches thereof, respectively, shall be the same as defined and prescribed in and by said laws and ordinances, and said General Orders, numbered 118 and 195, until otherwise provided by law: Provided, however, that the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court and the marshal thereof shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and the judges of the District Court shall be appointed by the Governor, by and with the advice and consent of the Executive Council, and all other officials and attaches of all the other courts shall be chosen as may be directed by the legislative assembly, which shall have authority to legislate from time to time as it may see fit with respect to said courts, and any others they may deem it advisable to establish, their organization, the number of judges and officials and attaches for each, their jurisdiction, their procedure, and all other matters affecting them."

Clearly under these sections of the organic act the legislative assembly had express authority to legislate regarding the jurisdiction and procedure of its courts. While the jurisdiction of the other courts might be changed, the proper interpretation of the statute prevents the legislative assembly from passing an act in any wise affecting the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court or the District Courts.

In Kent v. Porto Rico, 207 U.S. 113, 115, it was contended that an act of the local legislature, creating additional judicial districts and changing those fixed by the military orders and local law, referred to in the organic act, and also reducing the number of judges in the District Court from three to one, "was void, because in conflict with the provision of the thirty-third section of the act of Congress," the same one here relied upon by the appellant as making the jurisdiction of the courts unchangeable save by Congress.

But to that contention this court replied:

"The argument is that this local law, in so far as it changed

[ 210 U.S. Page 307]

     the District Courts, and especially in so far as it provided for one instead of three judges to preside over each court, was void, because in conflict with the provision of the thirty-third section of the act of Congress. The contention amounts to this, that there were no District Courts in Porto Rico from the time of the going into effect of the Porto Rican act in 1904 up to the present time. Whilst the proposition presents a formal Federal question, we think it is clear that it is so frivolous as to bring it within the rule announced in American Railroad Co. v. Castro, supra. We say this, because we think that no other conclusion is reasonably possible from a consideration of the whole of section 33 of the act of Congress and the context of that act, particularly section 15 thereof, both of which are reproduced in the margin.*fn1

"We do not deem it necessary to analyze the text of the act of Congress to point out the inevitable result just stated, since the obvious meaning of the act is established by a decision heretofore rendered. Dones v. Urrutia, 202 U.S. 614. . . . On appeal to this court the questions raised were fully argued in printed briefs, but were deemed to be of such a frivolous character as not to require an opinion, and were hence disposed of per curiam, referring to the provisions of the statute and pertinent authorities."

It is true that the act of Congress of July 30, 1886, c. 818, 24 Stat. 170, enacts "that the legislatures of the Territories of the United States now or hereafter to be organized shall not pass local or special laws in any of the following enumerated cases," and among the prohibitions are those against "regulating the practice in courts of justice," and granting "to any corporation, association, or individual any special or exclusive privilege, immunity or franchise." But such general prohibitions have no application where specific permission to the contrary is granted by the organic act applying to the particular Territories.

[ 210 U.S. Page 308]

     This act is not a special law regulating the practice in courts of justice nor one granting to any corporation, association or individual any special or exclusive privilege, immunity or franchise. It confers the same right upon the people of Porto Rico and upon the municipalities as upon the church.

In the organic acts for the Territories (59th Congress, Senate Doc. 148) it appears that it has been usual for Congress to give the local legislatures the power to regulate the jurisdiction and procedure of their courts.

In Hornbuckle v. Toombs, 18 Wall. 648, after reviewing the question, the court, speaking through Mr. Justice Bradley, said (p. 655):

"Whenever Congress has proceeded to organize a government for any of the Territories it has merely instituted a general system of courts therefor, and has committed to the Territorial assembly full power, subject to a few specified or implied conditions, of supplying all details of legislation necessary to put the system into operation, even to the defining of the jurisdiction of the several courts. . . . The powers thus exercised by the Territorial legislatures are nearly as extensive as those exercised by any State legislature; and the jurisdiction of the Territorial courts is collectively coextensive with and correspondent to that of the State courts.

"From a review of the entire past legislation of Congress on the subject under consideration, our conclusion is that the practice, pleadings and forms and modes of proceeding of the Territorial courts, as well as their respective jurisdictions, subject, as before said, to a few express or implied conditions in the organic act itself, were intended to be left to the legislative action of the Territorial assemblies, and to the regulations which might be adopted by the courts themselves."

The Porto Rican act under consideration merely repeats the action of Congress in the past in organizing other Territories. The appellant contends "that the Roman Catholic Church of Porto Rico has not the legal capacity to sue, for the

[ 210 U.S. Page 309]

     reason that it is not a judicial person, nor a legal entity, and is without legal incorporation. . . . If it is a corporation or association, we submit to the court that it is necessary for the Roman Catholic Church to specifically allege its incorporation, where incorporated, and by virtue of what authority or law it was incorporated, and if a foreign corporation show that it has filed its articles of incorporation or association in the proper office of the government, in accordance with the laws of Porto Rico."

Since April 11, 1899, Porto Rico has been de facto and de jure American territory. The history of Porto Rico and its legal and political institutions up to the time of its annexation to the United States are matters which must be recognized by this court as the ancient laws and institutions of many of our States when matters come before it from their several jurisdictions.

The court will take judicial notice of the Spanish law as far as it affects our insular possession. It is pro tanto no longer foreign law.

The Civil Code in force in Cuba, Porto Rico and the Philippines at the time of the Treaty of Paris contains these provisions (Art. 35):

"Art. 35. The following are judicial persons: The corporations, associations and institutions of public interest recognized by law. Their personality begins from the very instant in which, in ...


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