Five Worst Decisions, Part II

Last week I said the fifth worst decision in the history of the Connecticut Supreme Court is State v. Clemente, 166 Conn. 501 (1974). Today I will discuss the fourth worst decision: Cole v. Steinlauf, 144 Conn. 629 (1957).

Cole concerned a deed that conveyed real property to the grantee and his assigns forever. The word “heirs” was omitted and there was no evidence other than the language of the deed as to intent.

Four of the five justices had this to say on that:

To create an estate of inheritance in land by deed, it is necessary to use the word “heirs.” Chappell v. New York, N.H. & H.R. Co., 62 Conn. 195, 202, 24 A. 997. Where the common-law rule is in effect, as it is in Connecticut, a grant to a grantee “and his assigns forever” vest only a life estate in the grantee. 19 Am. Jur. 474.

Id. at 631-32.

Shortly after the decision came out, Edward Stephenson, a professor at UConn Law School, wrote a scathing attack in “The Dictum of Cole v. Steinlauf: Its Causes and Its Implications,” 32 Conn. B.J. 262 (1958). His article first pointed out that the quoted language was dictum. Stephenson then went on at great length to explain how thoughtlessly the majority was acting when it stated expressly that this absurd relic of English feudal law was a part of Connecticut common law in 1957.

He showed that Chappell, an 1891 case, is itself dictum, and that the Am. Jur. citation had very weak support in the cases it relied on. More important, the majority had no interest in what was going on elsewhere (where the rule had been abandoned in virtually all states), no interest in why the rule was adopted in the first place, and no interest in whether it was a good or even a marginally acceptable rule in 1957.

Dictum piled on dictum, and then treated as binding without reflection on the absurdity of the result, gives Cole v. Steinlauf the honor of fourth worst decision ever.

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