Gaines v. Thompson

Decision Date01 December 1868
Citation7 Wall. 347,74 U.S. 347,19 L.Ed. 62
PartiesGAINES v. THOMPSON
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia.

The Secretary of the Interior having directed the Commissioner of the Land Office to cancel an entry under which Gaines and others claimed an equitable right to certain lands in Arkansas, these last brought their suit in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, praying that the secretary and commissioner should be enjoined from making such cancellation. The defendants entered their appearance, and Wilson, the commissioner, filed a plea. The substance of this plea was that the matters set up in the bill were within the exclusive control of the executive department of the government, the secretary and commissioner representing the President, and that the court had no jurisdiction or authority to interfere with the exercise of this power by injunction. In point of fact the validity of the entry in question depended upon the construction of certain acts of Congress, upon the meaning of which different secretaries of the interior had been so far divided that it was thought best to take the opinion of the Attorney-General upon their interpretation.

The court below, sustaining the plea, dismissed the bill; and the question on this appeal was the correctness of such action.

Mr. J. L. Brent, for the appellant, went largely into the merits of the respective claimants, to show that the proposed cancellation was wrong, and ought to be enjoined. He relied upon Lytle v. Arkansas1 Cunningham v. Ashley,2 Barnard's Heirs v. Ashley's Heirs,3 Minnesota v. Bachelder,4 and several other cases, in order to show that this court did constantly go into such merits and decide according to them, irrespective of decisions by the executive officers connected with the issue of patents.

Mr. Ashton, Assistant Attorney-General, contra, argued, that there were no functions within the range of the executive authority less ministerial in their character than those which devolved upon the officers of the land department in the administration of matters relating to the disposal of the public domain; that these officers had not merely the right, but were obliged to the duty of judgment and decision in them, and were directly responsible in determining the questions which arose before them only to the authority, within their own department of the public service, upon whom a supervisory jurisdiction had been conferred by statute.

The case was therefore within the principle which forbade judicial interference with the exercise of executive discretion; a principle lately so ably explained in this court in the case of Mississippi v. Johnson,5 that it was almost unnecessary to refer to previous adjudications.6

All the cases, he contended, cited by the appellants, in which the courts had undertaken to review ultimately the action of the land office, were cases between private parties, litigated after the legal title had passed, by patent or otherwise, out of the government. That right was undisputed.

Mr. Justice MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

The extent of the jurisdiction which may lawfully be asserted by the Federal courts over the officers of the executive departments of the government, has been mooted in this court from the case of Marbury v. Madison7 down to the present time; and while the principles which should govern the action of the courts in that regard have been settled long since, the frequent application of late to this court, and to other Federal courts, for the exercise of powers not belonging to them, shows that the question is one not generally understood.

In the case already referred to, of Marbury v. Madison, the Chief Justice commented at some length upon the power of the courts over the action of the executive officers of the government, in the course of which he arrived at the conclusion that it is a question which must always depend upon the nature of the act. He then argues, that by the Constitution the President is invested with certain political powers, in the exercise of which he is to use his own discretion, and for which he is accountable only to his country and his conscience, and that he has officers to aid him in the exercise of these powers, who are directly accountable to him. The acts of such an officer, he says, can never, as an officer, be examinable in a court of justice. He holds, however, that where an officer is required by law to perform an act, not of this political or executive character, which affects the private rights of individuals, he is to that extent amenable to the courts. The duty which it was held in that case could be enforced in the proper court by mandamus, was the delivery of a commission already signed by the President. The point, as there presented, was new and embarrassing, and it is no reflection on the distinguished jurist who delivered the opinion to say, that the rule which governs the court in its action, in this class of cases, has since been laid down with more precision, without conflicting with the principles there stated.

In the case of McIntire v. Wood,8 an application was made to the Circuit Court for the District of Ohio for a mandamus to the register of the land office, to compel him to issue certificates of purchase to plaintiff for lands to which he supposed himself entitled by law. This court was of opinion that no power had been vested by Congress in the circuit courts to issue the writ in such cases. The reasoning of the court is not extended, but the case bears a strong analogy to the one under consideration.

But in Kendall v. United States,9 the majority of the court held that the courts of the District of Columbia had a larger power than the circuit courts, and could issue writs of mandamus to Federal officers in proper cases. As this is the first case in which the writ was actually ordered, it is worth while to examine the ground on which it was placed. 'The act required to be done by the Postmaster-General,' says the court, 'is simply to credit the relators with the full amount of the award of the solicitor. This is a precise, definite act, purely ministerial, and about which the Postmaster-General had no discretion whatever. This was not an official act in any other sense than being a transaction in the department where the books and accounts were kept, and was an official act in the same sense that an entry in the minutes of a court, pursuant to an order of the court, is an official act. There is no room for the exercise of any discretion, official or otherwise.'

In this language there is no ambiguity, and in it we find a clear enunciation of the rule which separates the class of cases in which the court will interfere from those in which it will not. In the subsequent case of Decatur v. Paulding,10 where the writ was refused, the Chief Justice, who had dissented in the former case, accepts both the doctrine of the right to issue the writ by the court of the district, and of the cases in which it may be issued, as settled by the case of Kendall v. United States. 'The first question, therefore, to be considered,' he says, 'is whether the duty imposed upon the Secretary of the Navy by the resolution in favor of Mrs. Decatur was a mere ministerial act?' The case of Mrs. Decatur arose under an act of Congress, and also a joint resolution of that body of the same date, both providing compensation for the services of her deceased husband; but the measure of this compensation ...

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