The Siren

Citation74 U.S. 152,19 L.Ed. 129,7 Wall. 152
Decision Date01 December 1868
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

APPEAL from the District Court for Massachusetts.

The steamer Siren was captured in the harbor of Charleston in attempting to violate the blockade of that port, in February, 1865, by the steamer Gladiolus, belonging to the navy of the United States. She was placed in charge of a prize master and crew, and ordered to the port of Boston for adjudication. On her way she was obliged to put into the port of New York for coal, and, in proceeding thence through the narrow passage which leads to Long Island Sound, known as Hurlgate, she ran into and sank the sloop Harper, loaded with iron, and bound from New York to Providence, Rhode Island. The collision was regarded by this court, on the evidence, as the fault of the Siren.

On the arrival of the steamer at Boston, a libel in prize was filed against her, and no claim having been presented, she was, in April following, condemned as lawful prize, and sold. The proceeds of the sale were deposited with the assistant treasurer of the United States, in compliance with the act of Congress, where they now remain, subject to the order of the court.

In these proceedings the owners of the sloop Harper, and the owners of her cargo, intervened by petition, asserting a claim upon the vessel and her proceeds, for the damages sustained by the collision, and praying that their claim might be allowed and paid out of the proceeds.

The District Court held that the intervention could not be allowed, and dismissed the petitions; and hence the present appeals.

Mr. Ashton, Assistant Attorney-General Of the United States, argued the case fully, upon principles and authority, maintaining the correctness of the decree below upon several specific grounds, resolvable into these two general ones:

1st. That to allow the intervention would be, in substance, to allow the citizen to implead the government, which, he asserted, was universally repugnant to settled principles; and,

2d. That the question as to a claim upon a prize ship, created after capture, was not within the jurisdiction of a prize court, which, he contended, can deal only with the question of prize or no prize.

Mr. Causten Browne, contra.

Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.

It is a familiar doctrine of the common law, that the sovereign cannot be sued in his own courts without his consent. The doctrine rests upon reasons of public policy; the inconvenience and danger which would follow from any different rule. It is obvious that the public service would be hindered, and the public safety endangered, if the supreme authority could be subjected to suit at the instance of every citizen, and consequently controlled in the use and disposition of the means required for the proper administration of the government. The exemption from direct suit is, therefore, without exception. This doctrine of the common law is equally applicable to the supreme authority of the nation, the United States. They cannot be subjected to legal proceedings at law or in equity without their consent; and whoever institutes such proceedings must bring his case within the authority of some act of Congress. Such is the language of this court in United States v. Clarke.1

The same exemption from judicial process extends to the property of the United States, and for the same reasons. As justly observed by the learned judge who tried this case, there is no distinction between suits against the government directly, and suits against its property.

But although direct suits cannot be maintained against the United States, or against their property, yet, when the United States institute a suit, they waive their exemption so far as to allow a presentation by the defendant of set-offs, legal and equitable, to the extent of the demand made or property claimed, and when they proceed in rem, they open to consideration all claims and equities in regard to the property libelled. They then stand in such proceedings, with reference to the rights of defendants or claimants, precisely as private suitors, except that they are exempt from costs and from affirmative relief against them, beyond the demand or property in controversy. In United States v. Ringgold,2 a claim of the defendant was allowed as a set-off to the demand of the government. 'No direct suit,' said the court, 'can be maintained against the United States. But when an action is brought by the United States to recover moneys in the hands of a party who has a legal claim against them, it would be a very rigid principle to deny to him the right of setting up such claim in a court of justice, and turn him round to an application to Congress.' So in United States v. Macdaniel,3 to which reference is made in the case cited, the defendant was allowed to set off against the demand of the government a claim for services as agent for the payment of the navy pension fund, to which the court held he was equitably entitled. The question, said the court, was, whether the defendant should surrender the money which happened to be in his hands, and then petition Congress on the subject; and it was held that the government had no right, legal or equitable, to the money.

For the damages occasioned by collision of vessels at sea a claim is created against the vessel in fault, in favor of the injured party. This claim may be enforced in the admiralty by a proceeding in rem, except where the vessel is the property of the United States. In such case the claim exists equally as if the vessel belonged to a private citizen, but for reasons of public policy, already stated, cannot be enforced by direct proceedings against the vessel. It stands, in that respect, like a claim against the government, incapable of enforcement without its consent, and unavailable for any purpose.

In England, when the damage is inflicted by a vessel belonging to the crown, it was formerly held that the remedy must be sought against the officer in command of the offending ship. But the present practice is to file a libel in rem, upon which the court directs the registrar to write to the lords of the admiralty requesting an appearance on behalf of the crown—which is generally given—when the subsequent proceedings to decree are conducted as in other cases.4 In the case of The Athol,5 the court refused to issue a monition to the lords of the admiralty to appear in a suit for damage by collision, occasioned to a vessel by a ship of the crown; but the lords having subsequently directed an appearance to be entered, the court proceeded with the case, and awarded damages. As no warrant issues in these cases for the arrest of the vessels of the crown, and no bail is given on the appearance, it is insisted that they are brought simply to ascertain the extent of the damages, and that the decrees are little more than awards, so far as the government is concerned. This may be the only result of the suits, but they are instituted and conducted on the hypothesis that claims against the offending vessels are created by the collision.6 The vessels are not arrested and taken into custody by the marshal, for the reasons of public policy already stated, and for the further reason that it is to be presumed that the government will at once satisfy a decree rendered by its own tribunals in a case in which it has voluntarily appeared.

It is true, that in case of damage committed by a public vessel a legal responsibility attaches to the actual wrongdoer, the commanding officer of the offending ship, and the injured party may seek redress against him; but this is not inconsistent with the existence of a claim against the vessel itself. In the case of The Athol, already referred to, where the liability of the actual wrongdoer is asserted, damages against the vessel were pronounced after an appearance on behalf of the crown had been given by the admiralty proctor.7

The inability to enforce the claim against the vessel is not inconsistent with its existence.

Seamen's wages constitute preferred claims, under the maritime law, upon all vessels; yet they cannot be enforced against a vessel of the nation, or a vessel employed in its service. In a case before the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania, in 1781, it was adjudged, on a plea to the jurisdiction, that mariners enlisting on board a ship of war belonging to a sovereign independent State could not libel the ship for their wages.

In a case in the English Admiralty Court, a libel having been filed to enforce a claim for seamen's wages against a packet ship employed in the service of the General Post Office, Sir William Scott declined to take jurisdiction until notice was given to the Post Office Department, and he was informed that no objection was taken to the proceeding.8 The fact that the court took jurisdiction when the exemption, upon which the government could insist, was waived, shows that a claim against the vessel existed, as only upon its existence could the libel in any event be sustained.

Even where claims are made liens upon property by statute, they cannot be enforced by direct suit, if the property subsequently vest in the government. Thus in Massachusetts the statutes provide, that any person to whom money is due for labor and materials furnished in the construction of a vessel in that commonwealth, shall have a lien upon her, which shall be preferred to all other liens except mariners' wages, and shall continue until the debt is paid, unless lost by a failure to comply with certain specified conditions; yet in a recent case, where a vessel subject to a lien of this character was transferred to the United States, it was held that the lien could not be enforced in the courts of that State. The decision was placed upon the general exemption of the government and its property from legal process.9

So also express contract liens upon the property of the United States are incapable of enforcement. A mortgage upon property, the title to...

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