It is, however, possibly arguable, that, notwithstanding the doctrine just stated, a claim that due process of law has been denied may be set up when a court has refused to the defeated litigant the benefit of the existing law controlling the matter in suit by giving a clearly erroneous interpretation either to a statute, or to the common law.
35 166 U. S. 226; 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 581; 41 L. ed. 979.
36 159 U. S. 103; 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 80; 40 L. ed. 91.
37 Citing Walker v. Sauvinet, 92 U. S. 90; 23 L. ed. 678; Head v. Amoskeag Mfg. Co., 113 U. S. 9; 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 441; 28 L. ed. 889; Morley v. Lake Shore, etc., R. Co., 146 U. S. 162; 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 54; 36 L. ed. 925; Bergemann v. Backer, 157 U. S. 655; 15 Sup. Ct. Rep. 727; 39 L. ed. 845.
In support of this doctrine the argument is that the litigant has the right to the benefit of the existing law defining and providing for the protection of the rights involved; and that while it be true that, generally speaking, it is the peculiar province of the state courts to determine what that law is, yet, when they give an interpretation to a statute which is clearly unreasonable, or stronger still, when they reverse a prior and well-established interpretation, the federal Supreme Court may assume jurisdiction on error and hold that due process of law has been denied. In other words, it may be argued that just as a legislative act is void when, to sustain its constitutionality, is required a construction of the Constitution under which it is enacted which is beyond reason, so here, the federal court will reverse the decision of a state court based upon an interpretation of law which, in the opinion of the federal court, is beyond reason, or clearly in amendment of a previously established rule.
It is to be admitted that the Supreme Court has repeatedly repudiated the doctrine as above set forth; but upon the other hand, there are several cases in which the decision reached, and even the language employed has seemed to imply a recognition of it.38
In Scott v. McNeal,39 a case coming to the Supreme Court by writ of error to review the judgment of the highest court of a State upon the ground that the judgment therein denied due process of law to the plaintiff in error, the federal court held that it was "no more bound by that [the state] court's construction of a statute of the Territory or of the State, when the question is whether the statute provided for the notice required to constitute due process of law, than when the question is whether the statute created a contract which has been impaired by a subsequent law of the State, or whether the original liability created by the statute was such that a judgment upon it has not been given due faith and credit in the courts of another State. In every such case, this court must decide for itself the true construction of the statute."
38 Upon this point see the valuable article by Mr. Henry Schofield entitled "The Supreme Court of the United States and the Enforcement of State Law by State Courts," in the Illinois Law Review, III. 195 (Nov. 1908).
39 154 U. S. 34; 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1108; 38 L. ed. 896.
In this case the state court had held, that, under a state statute, the appointment by a probate court of an administrator of the estate of a person, believed dead, but in fact alive, was valid as to him, although he had received no notice thereof. "No judgment," the federal Supreme Court say, "is due process of law, if rendered without jurisdiction in the court or without notice to the party."
As to the correctness of this last statement there can be no doubt, but it will be observed that the Supreme Court did not hold that, because the state law, as interpreted by the state court, permitted this to be done, it was to be held void. Rather, it held that it would not follow the decision of the state court which gave to the state law this effect. In short, the federal court, in effect, said that the state court had, by an erroneous decision of what the state law was, deprived the plaintiff in error of property without due process of law.
It is to be observed, however, that this error upon the part of the state court was one which permitted the state probate court to exercise jurisdiction over a party over whom it had not obtained jurisdiction, and that thus an essential requirement of due process upon its procedural side was disregarded. The case was not, therefore, one in which the federal court had held that a mere error upon the part of a state court, whether by way of a misconstruction of a statute, or the reversal of an earlier construction of a statute, or a novel determination of the common law, operated as a denial to the defeated party of his right to the benefit of the state law at the time his right of action or other property right accrued.
In Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. Chicago,40 however, a case coming to the Supreme Court by writ of error to the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois, this step seems to have been taken. In this case the constitutionality of a state law was not involved, the only question being whether by an award sustained in the state court of one dollar of damages to the plaintiff company as compensation for valuable property taken for a public use, it had been deprived of property without due process of law. The federal court held such to be the case, saying, in words earlier quoted: "In our opinion, a judgment of a state court, even if it be authorized by statute, whereby its private property is taken for the State, or under its direction for public use, without compensation made or secured to the owner, is, under principle and authority, wanting in due process of law required by the Fourteenth Amendment."
40 166 U. S. 226; 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 581; 41 L. ed. 979.
The Supreme Court in its opinion admit that the original verdict might not unreasonably be taken as meaning that, in the opinion of the jury, the company's property proposed to be taken was not materially damaged, and that, as in so far as this estimate was one of fact, it was not subject to revision on writ of error. But it was pointed out that the jury had acted under instructions from the Supreme Court of the State, which instructions practically controlled its determination, and these judicial instructions the federal Supreme Court held to have been improper and to have resulted in the taking of property for a public use without due compensation paid or received, and that this was a deprivation of property without due process of law.
Here again, it is plain that, as in Scott v. McNeal, the federal court declined to follow the decision of a state court as to the law applicable to the matter in suit, upon the ground that to do so would permit the deprivation of property without due process of law. And, furthermore, this refusal was based on the principle that a litigant being entitled to the benefit of existing law governing his rights, a mere misinterpretation by a state court of what that law is, and which does not necessarily involve a denial of an essential procedural requirement of due process of law. is a denial of due process such as would support the revisionary power of the Supreme Court on writ of error.
Muhlker v. New York & Harlem R. Co.41 there had been a complete reversal of ruling by the state court as to the legal right of the plaintiff to recover damages due to the creation of an elevated railway structure on the street upon which his property abutted. Upon error, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to follow the later decision of the state court as to the requirements of the state law. By a very forced construction the Supreme Court was able to hold that a contract right to indemnity had been violated by a state law. The court admit, however, that the question of due process of law was involved, and it would seem that the decision might have been more satisfactorily disposed of upon this ground.
It being established, then, that substantive rights of individuals are protected by the due process of law clauses, it becomes necessary to consider what these rights of life, liberty, and property are.
The right of life requires no definition.