366 U.S. 643 (1961), 329, United States v. Oregon

Docket Nº:No. 329
Citation:366 U.S. 643, 81 S.Ct. 1278, 6 L.Ed.2d 575
Party Name:United States v. Oregon
Case Date:May 29, 1961
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 643

366 U.S. 643 (1961)

81 S.Ct. 1278, 6 L.Ed.2d 575

United States

v.

Oregon

No. 329

United States Supreme Court

May 29, 1961

Argued April 25, 1961

CERTIORARI TO TE SUPREME COURT OF OREGON

Syllabus

An Oregon resident died in a United States Veterans' Administration Hospital in Oregon without a will or legal heirs, leaving a net estate of personal property. He had not entered into a contract with the United States concerning such property, and was mentally incompetent to do so. Oregon claimed such property under its escheat law, and the United States claimed it under 38 U.S.C. (1952 ed.) § 17, which provides that, when a veteran dies in such a hospital without a will or legal heirs, his personal property "shall immediately vest in and become the property of the United States as trustee for the sole use and benefit of the General Post Fund."

Held: the United States was entitled to the property as such trustee. Pp. 643-649.

(a) The federal statute operates automatically, and does not require that the veteran shall have entered into a contract with the United States. Pp. 645-648.

(b) The statute is within the power of Congress, and it does not violate the Tenth Amendment. Pp. 648-649.

222 Ore. 40, 352 P.2d 539, reversed.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Adam Warpouske, an Oregon resident, died in a United States Veterans' Administration Hospital in Oregon without a will or legal heirs, leaving a net estate composed of personal property worth about $13,000. Oregon law provides

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that such property shall escheat to the State.1 A United States statute, on the other hand, provides that, [81 S.Ct. 1279] when a veteran dies without a will or legal heirs in a veterans' hospital, his personal property "shall immediately vest in and become the property of the United States as trustee for the sole use and benefit of the General Post Fund. . . ."2 In reliance upon these provisions of their respective statutes, both the State of Oregon and the Government of the United States filed claims for Warpouske's estate in the Oregon probate court having jurisdiction of the matter.

Recognizing that the federal statute, if applicable and valid, would make the claim of the United States paramount, the State attacked the Government's reliance upon that statute on two grounds: first, it urged that the federal statute did not apply to this case on the theory that its provisions depended upon the Government's having made a valid contract with the veteran prior to his death, and that Warpouske had made no such contract because he had been mentally incompetent to do so when he entered the hospital and at all times thereafter up to his death; and, secondly, it urged that the federal statute, even if applicable, was invalid because it pertains to the devolution of property, a matter contended to have been wholly reserved to the States by the Tenth Amendment.

After hearings, the probate court found as a fact that Warpouske had been unable to enter into a valid contract with the Government because of his mental

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incompetence. That court then accepted the State's interpretation of the federal statute as requiring a valid contract as a prerequisite to its application, and concluded that, since such a contract could not, in this case, have been made, the State was entitled to Warpouske's property by virtue of its escheat law. On appeal, the State Supreme Court affirmed on the same grounds.3 Because of the importance of this question of federal statutory construction and an alleged conflict between this decision and decisions previously made by other state courts of final jurisdiction,4 we granted certiorari.5

Since we accept the findings of the two state courts that Warpouske could not and did not enter into a contract to leave his property to the United States, the crucial question is whether the Government can prevail in the absence of such a contract. We hold that it can on the grounds that the federal statute relied upon does not require a contract, and that this statute does not violate the Tenth Amendment.

The controlling provision was passed in 1941 as an amendment to the Sundry Appropriations Act of 1910.6 The 1910 Act quite plainly and unequivocally provided that the admission of an applicant to a veterans' home should

be and constitute a valid and binding contract between such applicant and the Board of Managers of said home that, on the death of said applicant while a member of such home, leaving no heirs a law nor next of kin, all personal property owned by said applicant at the time of his death, including money or choses in action held by him and not disposed of by will . . . shall vest in

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and become the property of the said Board of Managers for the sole use and benefit of the post fund of said home. . . .

The contractual nature of these provisions of the 1910 Act was clear, and, indeed, we expressly recognized that fact [81 S.Ct. 1280] when the question of the validity of the Act was brought before this Court.7

The 1910 Act was greatly amplified, however, by the amendments adopted in 1941,8 and the central provision of the Act, quoted above, was significantly changed. Section 1 of the new Act restates this provision without reference to the word "contract," providing simply that, when a veteran dies "while a member or patient in any facility, or any hospital while being furnished care or treatment," all his personal property

not disposed of by will or otherwise shall immediately vest in and become the property of the United States as trustee for the sole use and benefit of the General Post Fund. . . .9

The Act then goes on to supplement this basic provision with other provisions that are drawn in the language of contract. But these provisions must be read in the context of § 2 of the Act, which provides that the death of a veteran in a veterans' hospital "shall give rise to a conclusive presumption of a valid contract."10 Read in this context, the language of contract which appears in these other provisions of the Act is not at all inconsistent with the provision for automatic vesting without a contract in § 1. Quite the contrary, it seems plain to us that

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these "contractual" provisions were included in the Act for the purpose of reinforcing, rather than detracting from, the provisions of § 1 -- the thought apparently being that there was some chance that the Act would be attacked as unconstitutional, and that it would consequently be advisable to include alternative bases upon which it could be upheld.11

This natural construction we give to § 1 makes it fit well in the pattern of legislation dealing with this subject. The solicitude of Congress for veterans is of long standing.12 Veterans' pensions, homes, hospitals and other facilities have been supplied on an ever-increasing scale. Many veterans, as did the deceased veteran here, have had to depend upon these benefits for long periods of their lives. Warpouske, for example, appears to have spent more than ten years of his life at various intervals from time to time, in veterans' homes and hospitals throughout the country. These were the only homes he had at those times. The congressional plan here is that whatever little personal property veterans without wills or kin happen to leave when...

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