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decided: March 19, 1888.



Author: Field

[ 125 U.S. Page 203]

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

As seen by the statement of the case, two questions are presented for our consideration: first, was the act of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Oregon of the 22d of December, 1852, declaring the bonds of matrimony between David S. Maynard and his wife dissolved, valid and effectual to divorce the parties; and, second, if valid and effectual for that purpose, did such divorce defeat any rights of the wife to a portion of the donation claim.

The act of Congress creating the Territory of Oregon, and establishing a government for it, passed on the 14th of August, 1848, vested the legislative power and authority of the Territory in an Assembly, consisting of two boards, a Council and a House of Representatives. 9 Stat. 323, c. 177, § 4. It declared, § 6, that the legislative power of the Territory should "extend to all rightful subjects of legislation not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States," but that no law should be passed interfering with the primary disposal of the soil; that no tax should be imposed upon the property of the United States; that the property of non-residents should not be taxed higher than the property of residents; and that all the laws passed by the Assembly should be submitted to Congress, and if disapproved should be null and of no effect. It also contained various provisions against the creation of institutions for banking purposes, or with authority to put into circulation notes or bills, and against pledging the faith of the people of the Territory to any loan. These exceptions from the grant of legislative power have no bearing upon the

[ 125 U.S. Page 204]

     questions presented. The grant is made in terms similar to those used in the act of 1836, under which the Territory of Wisconsin was organized. It is stated in Clinton v. Englebrecht, 13 Wall. 434, 444, that that act seemed to have received full consideration; and from it all subsequent acts for the organization of territories have been copied, with few and inconsiderable variations. There were in the Kansas and Nebraska acts, as there mentioned, provisions relating to slavery, and in some other acts provisions growing out of local circumstances. With these, and perhaps other exceptions not material to the questions before us, the grant of legislative power in all the acts organizing territories, since that of Wisconsin, was expressed in similar language. The power was extended "to all rightful subjects of legislation," to which was added in some of the acts, as in the act organizing the Territory of Oregon, "not inconsistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States," a condition necessarily existing in the absence of express declaration to that effect.

What were "rightful subjects of legislation" when theses acts organizing the Territories were passed, is not to be settled by reference to the distinctions usually made between legislative acts and such as are judicial or administrative in their character, but by an examination of the subjects upon which legislatures had been in the practice of acting with the consent and approval of the people they represented. A long acquiescence in repeated acts of legislation on particular matters, is evidence that those matters have been generally considered by the people as properly within legislative control. Such acts are not to be set aside or treated as invalid, because upon a careful consideration of their character doubts may arise as to the competency of the legislature to pass them. Rights acquired, or obligations incurred under such legislation, are not to be impaired because of subsequent differences of opinion as to the department of government to which the acts are properly assignable. With special force does this observation apply, when the validity of acts dissolving the bonds of matrimony is assailed, the legitimacy of many children, the peace of many families, and the settlement of many estates depending

[ 125 U.S. Page 205]

     upon its being sustained. It will be found from the history of legislation that, whilst a general separation has been observed between the different departments, so that no clear encroachment by one upon the province of the other has been sustained, the legislative department, when not restrained by constitutional provisions and a regard for certain fundamental rights of the citizen which are recognized in this country as the basis of all government, has acted upon everything within the range of civil government. Loan Association v. Topeka, 20 Wall. 655, 663. Every subject of interest to the community has come under its direction. It has not merely prescribed rules for future conduct, but has legalized past acts, corrected defects in proceedings, and determined the status, conditions, and relations of parties in the future.

Marriage, as creating the most important relation in life, as having more to do with the morals and civilization of a people than any other institution, has always been subject to the control of the legislature. That body prescribes the age at which parties may contract to marry, the procedure or form essential to constitute marriage, the duties and obligations it creates, its effects upon the property rights of both, present and prospective, and the acts which may constitute grounds for its dissolution.

It is conceded that to determine the propriety of dissolving the marriage relation may involve investigations of a judicial nature which can properly be conducted by the judicial tribunals. Yet such investigations are no more than those usually made when a change of the law is designed. They do not render the enactment, which follows the information obtained, void as a judicial act because it may recite the cause of its passage. Many causes may arise, physical, moral, and intellectual -- such as the contracting by one of the parties of an incurable disease like leprosy, or confirmed insanity or hopeless idiocy, or a conviction of a felony -- which would render the continuance of the marriage relation intolerable to the other party and productive of no possible benefit to society. When the object of the relation has been thus defeated, and no jurisdiction is vested in the judicial tribunals to grant a divorce,

[ 125 U.S. Page 206]

     it is not perceived that any principle should prevent the legislature itself from interfering and putting an end to the relation in the interest of the parties as well as of society. If the act declaring the divorce should attempt to interfere with rights of property vested in either party, a different question would be presented.

When this country was settled, the power to grant a divorce from the bonds of matrimony was exercised by the Parliament of England. The ecclesiastical courts of that country were limited to the granting of divorces from bed and board. Naturally, the legislative assemblies of the colonies followed the example of Parliament and treated the subject as one within their province. And until a recent period legislative divorces have been granted, with few exceptions, in all the States. Says Bishop, in his Treatise on Marriage and Divorce: "The fact that at the time of the settlement of this country legislative divorces were common, competent, and valid in England, whence our jurisprudence was derived, makes them conclusively so here, except where an invalidity is directly or indirectly created by a written constitution binding the legislative power." § 664. Says Cooley, in his Treatise on Constitutional Limitations: "The granting of divorces from the bonds of matrimony was not confided to the courts in England, and from the earliest days the colonial and state legislatures in this country have assumed to possess the same power over the subject which was possessed by the Parliament, and from time to time they have passed special laws declaring a dissolution of the bonds of matrimony in special cases." p. 110. Says Kent, in his Commentaries: "During the period of our colonial government, for more than one hundred years preceding the Revolution, no divorce took place in the colony of New York, and for many years ...

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