Bronson v. Kinzie

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42 U.S. 311 (1843), submitted without oral argument, decided 23 Feb. 1843 by vote of 6 to 1; Taney for the Court, McLean in dissent, Story and McKinley not participating. Bronson exemplified the Supreme Court's determination to protect private contracts from infringement by state legislation. At issue were two 1841 Illinois statutes that limited mortgage foreclosure sales and gave mortgagors expanded rights to redeem foreclosed property. These measures were retroactive, applying to mortgages made before the acts were passed. Prior to passage of the statutes, John H. Kinzie had mortgaged his property to Arthur Bronson. Bronson sought to foreclose the mortgage free of the legislative restrictions.

Chief Justice Roger B. Taney held that this legislative attempt to modify the terms of the existing mortgage was an unconstitutional impairment of the obligation of contract. Taney agreed that a state could alter the remedies available to enforce past as well as future contracts. He nonetheless emphasized that such changes could not materially impair the rights of creditors. In broad language Taney extolled the virtue of the Contract Clause: “It was undoubtedly adopted as a part of the Constitution for a great and useful purpose. It was to maintain the integrity of contracts, and to secure their faithful execution throughout this Union” (p. 318). In dissent, Justice John McLean argued that the statutes simply modified the remedy for the enforcement of contracts.

The Court long adhered to the Bronson rule, invalidating state laws that interfered with contractual rights in the guise of regulating remedies. The decision was effectively superseded, however, by Home Building and Loan Association v. Blaisdell (1934), in which the justices ruled that contracts were subject to the reasonable exercise of state police power.

James W. Ely, Jr.

Subjects: Law.

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