Chesapeake Delaware Canal Co v. United States

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation63 L.Ed. 889,39 S.Ct. 407,250 U.S. 123
Docket NumberNo. 192,192
Decision Date19 May 1919

250 U.S. 123
39 S.Ct. 407
63 L.Ed. 889



No. 192.
Argued and Submitted April 17, 1919.
Decided May 19, 1919.

Mr. Charles J. Biddle, of Philadelphia, Pa., for plaintiff in error.

Page 124

Messrs. Alexander C. King, Sol. Gen., of Atlanta, Ga., and G. Carroll Todd and Lincoln R. Clark, both of Washington, D. C., for the United States.

Mr. Justice CLARKE delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1912 the United States sued the Canal Company to recover the amount of three dividends which had been declared on shares of its capital stock owned by the government, in the years 1873, 1875, and 1876, payment of which, it was averred, had been refused when demand was made therefor in the year 1911.

After various vicissitudes the case went to trial on issue joined on the plea of payment by the company and it comes into this court on writ of error to the Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

There are forty-one assignments of error in this court, which counsel in their brief compress into five questions, and these resolve themselves, at once, into three, viz.: (1) The applicability of the statute of limitations of the state of Delaware; (2) the admissibility in evidence of certain books of the Department of the Treasury; and (3) the propriety of a requested instruction in favor of the Canal Company.

Such a record constrains us to repeat the following:

'This practice of unlimited assignments is a perversion of the rule, defeating all its purposes, bewildering the counsel of the other side, and leaving the court to gather from a brief, often as prolix as the assignments of error, which of the latter are really relied on.' Phillips, etc., Construction Co. v. Seymour, 91 U. S. 646, 648 (23 L. Ed. 341), Grayson v. Lynch, 163 U. S. 468, 16 Sup. Ct. 1064, 41 L. Ed. 230, and Central Vermont Ry. Co. v. White, 238 U. S. 507, 35 Sup. Ct. 865, 59 L. Ed. 1433, Ann. Cas. 1916B, 252.

The plea of the statute of limitations was rejected by both lower courts, and, although the specific assignment of this ruling as error in the Circuit Court of Appeals is

Page 125

not repeated in this court, it will be considered because possibly embraced within some of the general assignments.

Both lower courts ruled that the government was not bound by the state statute of limitations and that the doctrine of laches was not applicable to it, but they agreed that a rebuttable presumption of payment arose after the lapse of more than twenty years from the date when the debt became due, without suit being instituted to collect it, and that, this appearing from the pleadings of the government, the burden was upon it of overcoming the presumption by evidence that payment, as it averred, had not been made. The company, without introducing any testimony, relied wholly upon this presumption of payment.

Although the burden of the responsibility of proving nonpayment was accepted by the government, the Canal Company, nevertheless, argues that the state statute of limitations is also applicable.

It is settled beyond controversy that the United States when asserting 'sovereign' or governmental rights is not subject to either state statutes of limitations or to laches.

That the doctrine of laches is not applicable to the government was announced by Mr. Justice Story on the circuit in 1821 and afterward in 1824 authoritatively, upon principle, in United States v. Kirkpatrick, 9 Wheat. 720, 6 L. Ed. 199.

This rule has been often approved and was applied so lately as Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States, 243 U. S. 389, 409, 37 Sup. Ct. 387, 61 L. Ed. 791.

That the United States is not bound by state statutes of limitations is settled with equal definiteness in United States v. Nashville, etc., Ry. Co., 118 U. S. 120, 6 Sup. Ct. 1006, 30 L. Ed. 81; United States v. Whited & Wheless, 246 U. S. 552, 561, 38 Sup. Ct. 367, 62 L. Ed. 879.

Whether this rule extends to and includes the presumption of payment arising from the lapse of twenty years

Page 126

without suit to collect is not questioned by appropriate exceptions in the record before us, and it is, therefore, not decided. It is not intended, however, to approve the holding of the Circuit Court of Appeals on this subject. United States v. Thompson, 98 U. S. 486, 489, 25 L. Ed. 194, and cases hereinbefore cited.

The contention of the Canal Company that the government by becoming a stockholder in a private corporation so abdicated its governmental character that, under the circumstances of this case, it was bound as a private person by statutes and rules of limitation,...

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