Maze v. Hamilton
Maze v. Hamilton, Wythe 51 (1789), was a case involving a dispute over land in Greenbrier County.
James Maze claimed 400 acres of land in Greenbrier County in 1764 through settlement, along with the right of preemption (the right to take priority over other parties in claiming land). William Hamilton claimed the same land based on settlement - Hamilton said he bought part of the land from John Tackett, who Hamilton said had settled the land with Maze - and based on a survey by the Greenbrier Company which Hamilton said was taken in 1774, but which seemed to have actually been taken in 1775. In 1779, Maze presented his claim to a special court of commissioners, which awarded the 400 acres of land and preemption rights for 500 adjacent acres to Hamilton in January 1780. Maze filed a caveat, asking to temporarily bar any land grants based on the commissioners' decision, and in October 1782, the General Court of Virginia reversed the commissioners court and ordered that a grant for the 400 acres plus preemption rights for 1000 acres be awarded to Maze. Hamilton appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals, which granted the appeal on April 30, 1783. On October 29, 1783, the Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal, stating that the General Court had the final word on decisions about caveats filed against commissioners' decisions. On October 30, 1783, the Court of Appeals restored the appeal, then dismissed it for good on November 1, 1783.
On May 2, 1783, however, the Supreme Court of Appeals handed down an opinion stating that all surveys taken before 1776 should be confirmed and land should be granted according to those surveys. As a result, on November 5, 1783, the Commonwealth awarded 1100 acres to Hamilton, including the land Maze had won in the General Court. Maze filed a bill in the High Court of Chancery, claiming fraud.
The Court's Decision
The High Court of Chancery declared that the General Court had supreme jurisdiction over this issue and therefore equal authority to the Court of Appeals on the topic, and that since the General Court handed its decision down before the Court of Appeals did, the General Court's decision was final. Furthermore, the Court of Chancery said, since Maze was not party to the Court of Appeals decision making all surveys before 1776 official, it did not apply to him. Therefore, the High Court of Chancery found that the land grant Hamilton obtained after the Supreme Court's May 2, 1783, decision was fraudulent, and it nullified the grant of any land to Hamilton which included land awarded to Maze by the General Court back in October 1782. The High Court of Chancery directed Maze to pay the Greenbrier Company £3 as compensation for every 100 acres he reclaimed from Greenbrier's surveyed property.
Hamilton appealed the High Court of Chancery's decree to the Court of Appeals, and on June 20, 1791, the Court of Appeals issued a decision upholding the part of the High Court of Chancery's decree awarding the 400 acres of settled land to Maze, but dismissing the part of the decree that gave Maze preemptive rights to 1000 adjacent acres.
Some time after the High Court of Chancery issued its decision, Wythe began to have second thoughts. Wythe opined that it may have been improper to award Maze not just the 400 acres he claimed outright ownership of, but also acreage that he claimed preemptive rights to, since the settler's right of preemption wasn't created until 1779, several years after the survey that gave Hamilton his claim to that land. In the end, though, Wythe decided the award was proper, because if the initial claim took priority over a survey, then that claim's "shadow" - the preemptive right - should also take priority over the survey. Wythe, however, thought that the High Court of Chancery should not have required Maze to reimburse the Greenbrier Company for the land he claimed from its surveyed territory. Wythe believed that either Maze's claim prevailed over Greenbrier's, in which case Maze just needed to pay the required fee to the government; or Maze's claim failed against Greenbrier, in which case Maze had no grant and thus nothing to pay for.
- George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery, (Richmond: Printed by Thomas Nicolson, 1795), 51.
- The Court of Appeals's decision is Hamilton v. Maze, 8 Va. (4 Call) 196 (1791).