Donoghue v. United States Hitz v. Same

Citation77 L.Ed. 1356,289 U.S. 516,53 S.Ct. 740
Decision Date29 May 1933
Docket NumberNos. 729,730,s. 729
PartiesO'DONOGHUE v. UNITED STATES. HITZ v. SAME
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

The Attorney General and Mr.Thomas D. Thacher, Sol. Gen., of Washington, D.C., for the United States.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 523-525 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases are here on certificates from the Court of Claims. They involve the same questions, were argued together at the bar, and may well be disposed of by the same opinion.

Daniel W. O'Donoghue is an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, having been duly appointed to that position by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. He duly qualified as such justice on February 29, 1932, and has ever since been engaged in the performance of the duties of the office. At the time of his appointment and entry upon his duties, his salary was fixed by act of Congress (chapter 6, 44 Stat. 919 (D.C. Code 1929, T. 18, § 42)) at the rate of $10,000 per year, which was paid to him until June 30, 1932.

William Hitz is an associate justice of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, having been appointed on December 5, 1930, by the President, and later confirmed by the Senate. On February 13, 1931, he duly qualified as such associate justice and has ever since been engaged in performing the duties of his office. By the act of Congress already referred to, his salary was fixed at the rate of $12,500 per year. This amount he received until June 30, 1932.

By the Legislative Appropriation Act of June 30, 1932 (chapter 314, 47 Stat. 382, 401 (5 USCA § 673 note)), Congress provided as follows:

'Sec. 105. During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1933—* * *

'(d) In the case of the following persons the rate of compensation is reduced as follows: If more than $1,000 per annum but less than $10,000 per annum, 8 1/3 per centum; if $10,000 per annum or more, but less than $12,000 per annum, 10 per centum; if $12,000 per annum or more, but less than $15,000 per annum, 12 per centum; if $15,000 per annum or more, but less than $20,000 per annum, 15 per centum; if $20,000 per annum or more, 20 per centum. * * *

'Sec. 106. During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1933, the retired pay of all judges (except judges whose compensation may not, under the Constitution, be diminished during their continuance in office) and the retired pay of all commissioned and other personnel (except enlisted) of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Coast and Geodetic Survey, Lighthouse Service, and the Public Health Service shall be reduced as follows: If more than $1,000 per annum but less than $10,000 per annum, 8 1/3 per centum; if $10,000 per annum or more, but less than $12,000, 10 per centum; if $12,000 per annum or more, but less than $15,000 per annum, 12 per centum; if $15,000 per annum or more, but less than $20,000, 15 per centum; if $20,000 per annum or more, 20 per centum. This section shall not operate so as to reduce any rate of retired pay to less than $1,000 per annum.

'Special Salary Reductions

'Sec. 107. (a) During the fiscal year ending June 30, 1933—* * *

'(5) the salaries and retired pay of all judges (except judges whose compensation may not, under the Constitution, be diminished during their continuance in office), if such salaries or retired pay are at a rate exceeding $10,000 per annum, shall be at the rate of $10,000 per annum.'

In July, 1932, the Comptroller General of the United States held that the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia are 'legislative' courts and not 'constitutional' courts whose judges are entitled to the protection of article 3, § 1, of the Constitution, which provides:

'The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their Offices during good Behavior, and shall, at stated Times, receive for their Services, a Compensation, which shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office.'

Thereupon the disbursing officer of the Department of Justice, pursuant to the ruling of the Comptroller General, reduced the annual compensation by 10 per cent. in the case of Justice O'Donoghue, and by 20 per cent. in the case of Justice Hitz, and over their protest paid to them for the months of July to December, 1932, inclusive, their compensation at this reduced rate.

On January 19, 1933, suits were brought in the court of Claims to recover the amount of the deductions which had been made and enforced up to that time.

These suits are based upon the contention that the ruling of the Comptroller General and the deductions made in pursuance thereof are in violation of the provisions of the appropriation act just quoted, because section 107 specifically excepts from their operation 'judges whose compensation may not, under the Constitution, be diminished during their continuance in office,' and these plaintiffs are such judges. It is averred in the petitions that the ruling of the Comptroller General and the resulting deductions contravene article 3, § 1, of the Constitution, since plaintiffs were appointed to serve during good behavior and to receive a compensation which constitutionally cannot be diminished during their continuance in office. It is further averred that the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals of the District are vested by acts of Congress with all the jurisdiction and all the power conferred on the United States by the Constitution under article 3; that such jurisdiction and power have been exercised by the Court of Appeals from its organization in 1893, and by the Supreme Court of the District and its predecessor courts from the establishment of the government; that therefore, in the organization of these courts, Congress acted in virtue of article 3, and thereby constituted said courts inferior courts of the United States; that only to the extent that Congress has enlarged and extended the powers of said courts did that body act under any other than article 3; and that they are none the less such inferior courts because, by reason of their location at the seat of government, Congress, under article 1, § 8, cl. 17,* has conferred upon them powers and jurisdiction which it may not confer upon other federal courts. Each plaintiff avers a reluctance to institute a suit which may result in personal benefit to himself, but that he feels it a duty to the court, to the bar, to the citizens of the District of Columbi , and to the people of the United States to have the status of these important courts defined and settled as soon as possible.

The government demurred to the petitions, upon the ground, among others, that the justices of the District Supreme Court and Court of Appeals are not 'judges of inferior courts' within the meaning of section 1 of article 3 of the Constitution, and are therefore not 'judges whose compensation may not, under the Constitution, be diminished during their continuance in office,' within the meaning of section 107 of the appropriation act hereinbefore quoted.

Upon this state of the record the Court of Claims certified the following questions upon which it desires instruc- tions, under section 3(a) of the Act of February 13, 1925, c. 229, 43 Stat. 936, 939 (28 USCA § 288(a):

'I. Does Section 1, Article III, of the Constitution of the United States apply to the Supreme Court (and to the Court of Appeals) of the District of Columbia and forbid a reduction of the compensation of the Justices thereof during their continuance in office?'

'II. Can the compensation of a Justice of the Supreme Court (or of the Court of Appeals) of the District of Columbia be lawfully diminished during his continuance in office?'

Before entering upon a consideration of the subject, it is well to observe that Congress has not undertaken by the legislation under review to assume or indicate any view of the meaning of the constitutional provision involved, but has left open the question whether these judges or others are judges 'whose compensation may not, under the Constitution, be diminished during their continuance in office.' This relieves us from the duty, always a delicate one, of passing upon the constitutionality of the congressional act, and only requires us to ascertain and determine the meaning and application of the constitutional provision, to which determination, by the plain intent of Congress, the act will immediately accommodate itself. That is to say, neither the terms nor intent of the statute, but only the application made of it by the Comptroller General, will be affected by the construction which we shall put upon the constitutional limitation.

The questions propounded by the court below find no answer in any conclusive adjudication of this court; and it will materially assist us in arriving at a correct determination if we shall first consider the great underlying purpose which the framers of the Constitution had in mind and which led them to incorporate in that instrument the provision in respect of the permanent tenure of office and the undiminishable character of the compensation of the judges.

The Constitution, in distributing the powers of government, creates three distinct and separate departments—the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. This separation is not merely a matter of convenience or of governmental mechanism. Its object is basic and vital, Springer v. Government of Philippine Islands, 277 U.S. 189, 201, 48 S.Ct. 480, 72 L.Ed. 845; namely, to preclude a commingling of these...

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