The United States, Appellants v. Francis Ferreira, Administrator of Francis Pass, Deceased

Decision Date01 December 1851
Citation54 U.S. 40,13 How. 40,14 L.Ed. 40
CourtU.S. Supreme Court



December Term, 1851

(Mr. Justice WAYNE did not sit in this cause.)

THIS was an appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida.

The facts of the case are stated in the opinion of the court.

It was argued by Mr. Crittenden, who placed the case upon the ground which will be presently stated, and by Mr. Johnson for the appellee. There were also briefs filed on the same side by Mr. Sherman, Mr. W. Cost Johnson, and Mr. Ewing.

Mr. Crittenden, after giving a history of the cause and the laws, proceeded.

The District Judge, being satisfied with the causes assigned why this claim was not presented under the act of 1834, adjudicated to the petitioner, upon his claim and proof, as the amount or value of his losses, $6,080, and for interest thereon at the rate of 5 per cent. from the tenth of May, 1813, to the 26th June, 1835, $6,726.83, making in all $12,806.83.

From this decision the District Attorney prayed an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, 'to the end, that he might, if the laws allowed it, prosecute such appeal if instructed to do so.' I know nothing more of this proceeding than that, upon this appeal, the case has been brought to this court; and being here, it would be quite agreeable to me if the court would, by its high authority, settle and determine all the questions that arise out of this case, and which are presented before the Treasury Department in many others of a like character, and especially the question respecting the allowance of interest on the amount of the losses or injuries sustained by the claimants.

These questions have from the first been subjects of controversy between the claimants and the Secretary of the Treasury, and are likely to continue so till some higher authority shall interpose. It would be conducive to the public interest, and certainly desirable to the government, to obtain the judgment and directions of this enlightened court on this vexed subject.

In the adjustment or adjudication of these Florida claims by the Florida judges, interest was allowed, except in a few instances. The first of these adjudications were presented to the Secretary of the Treasury for payment in the year 1825, and others have been constantly and successively presented from that time to the present. The number of claims thus presented is about two hundred, and the amount paid has exceeded one million of dollars. But from the first, and in every case where interest had been allowed by the Florida judge, the principal only was paid, and the interest disallowed and rejected by the Secretary of the Treasury. For the period of the last twenty-five years this has been the unvaried and uniform course of decision and action by every successive Secretary of the Treasury, who has acted on the subject, sustained by the official opinions of several attorneys-general, and without the expressed dissent of any one of them officially declared.

It is respectfully insisted on the part of the United States that such a uniform and long continued series and course of decision has made the disallowance of interest, in whatever form awarded, a res adjudicata.

Congress had power to create a special tribunal, with jurisdiction to examine and adjust or adjudge these claims arising under the treaty with Spain. Their power in this respect was plenary and discretionary. By the acts above referred to they exercised that power, and created such a tribunal. It was a judicatory tribunal which they established, consisting of two parts or members, namely, one of the territorial judges of Florida to act and decide in the first instance; and secondly, the Secretary to exercise a revisory power or jurisdiction over the decisions of the Florida judge, paying the amount of them only 'on being satisfied that the same is just and equitable within the provisions of the treaty.' To this tribunal, thus constituted, Congress gave authority to decide on these claims; the decision of the Secretary of the Treasury being revisory and final. His decision was in its nature judicial, and made of the matter decided, a res adjudicata, in every rational and legitimate sense of those terms. The decision of a special or limited tribunal upon a subject within its jurisdiction is just as conclusive and binding as the judgments of courts of the highest and most unlimited jurisdiction.

The present case is, in its origin, and in respect to the question of interest, identical with the other Florida cases above alluded to.

I take it for granted that the substitution of the judge of the District Court of the United States, &c., in place of the territorial judge, as the person to adjust or adjudge these claims, can in no respect make any material difference. The authority of the one and the other is exactly the same, and the effect of their acts the same, whether they be called judges, or commissioners as in the above-cited act of Congress of 22d February, 1847. The act of Congress is the measure of their authority and of the effect of their proceedings under that authority.

Mr. Johnson was the only counsel who argued the case orally, for the appellee; the other counsel filed briefs. It is proper to say, that a motion had been made by the counsel for the appellee to dismiss the case for want of jurisdiction. This may serve to explain the preliminary remarks of Mr. Johnson, which were as follows:

It is our earnest wish, in behalf of the appellee, that this court should take jurisdiction of the case, and hear and decide it upon the merits, that if the decision of the court below be wrong, its errors may be corrected, and we may know the limits of our rights; and if the decision be correct, that it may be so pronounced by the authoritative voice of this high tribunal.

Nevertheless, in order to raise such questions as may be thus raised, we have found it necessary to move to dismiss the appeal. In the consideration of that motion, however, we do not feel bound to use such arguments only as will tend to show that an appeal does not lie in this case, but think we may with propriety present such views on the subject, and refer to such authorities, as in our judgment in any manner bear upon the question, and which will enable the court the more readily to apprehend and decide it.

The question now strictly before the court involves the nature of the claim, and the character of the tribunal whose decision is here for revision. We will, therefore, consider it in this order, and——

1st. As to the nature of the claim; is it, and is the class to which it belongs, the proper subject of judicial investigation and decision?

(Then followed an explanation of the case, after which the inference was drawn.)

There can be, therefore, no objection to the ordinary jurisdiction of the courts of the United States arising from the nature of these claims. They are proper subjects for the investigation of courts of justice, involving as they do questions touching the rights of property and injuries thereto. They fall properly within the jurisdiction of ocurts of the United States, as the judicial inquiry, and the rights to which it refers, arise out of treaty stipulations, and acts of Congress to carry the treaty into effect.

They are, therefore, wholly unlike the duties attempted to be imposed by the act of March 3, 1792, on the Circuit and District Courts, relative to pensions, and which they refused to perform because they were not judicial, holding the act for that, among other things, unconstitutional and void. Vide 2 Dall. Rep. 410, note.

Whatever analogy, therefore, may be found in other respects, or if not found, made by construction, between the act of 1792 and that of 1823, they differ wholly in this, that the duty imposed by that act was not judicial in its nature; in this, it is strictly so; and the instructions of the legislature to the judicial tribunals on whom the duty is imposed 'to receive, examine, and adjudge,' is an explicit instruction to perform that duty judically.

II. We have next to consider the character of the tribunal whose decision is before this court for revision; and on this point several inquiries suggest themselves:

1st. Was it a mere commission, not judicial in its character, whose decision might he taken up to, and revised by, the Secretary of the Treasury in his capacity as an executive officer?

2d. Or was it a judicial tribunal, part of a judicial system, created by the acts of 1823 and 1834, under the treaty, which acted and decided judicially, but from which an appeal lay, not to this court, but to the Secretary of the Treasury, as the highest appellate tribunal in that special system created under the treaty by those statutes?

3d. Or was it a judicial tribunal whose decision was final in all cases coming within the special jurisdiction conferred upon it under the treaty?

4th. Or was it an ordinary judicial tribunal, from which, in these as in other cases, an appeal lies to this court?

(Upon each of these questions the argument was very elaborate.)

III. Then arises the question, is the decision final, or does an appeal lie from it to this court?

There is nothing in the nature of the case itself, or the mode of proceeding directed by the acts of 1823 and 1834, which tends to settle this question. If the United States had not assumed the satisfaction of these injuries, suits would have been brought against the trespassers in the usual form, and a writ of error would have lain to revise the judgments. But the United States assumes the liability, agrees by treaty to open her courts, and allow the injuries to be established by her legal process, and binds herself to make satisfaction for the injuries, if any, which shall be so established. But the United States is not formally made defendant on the record; this was not directed by the acts of ...

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