The Western Maid United States v. Thompson the Liberty United States v. Morton the Carolinian United States v. Rose, Nos. 21-23

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtHOLMES
Citation257 U.S. 419,42 S.Ct. 159,66 L.Ed. 299
PartiesTHE WESTERN MAID. UNITED STATES v. THOMPSON, District Judge, et al. THE LIBERTY. UNITED STATES v. MORTON, District Judge, et al. THE CAROLINIAN. UNITED STATES v. ROSE, District Judge, et al. Original
Decision Date03 January 1922
Docket NumberNos. 21-23

257 U.S. 419
42 S.Ct. 159
66 L.Ed. 299
THE WESTERN MAID. UNITED STATES

v.

THOMPSON, District Judge, et al. THE LIBERTY. UNITED STATES v. MORTON, District Judge, et al. THE CAROLINIAN. UNITED STATES v. ROSE, District Judge, et al.

Nos. 21-23. Original.
Argued Dec. 12 and 13, 1921.
Decided Jan. 3, 1922.

Page 420

Mr. Solicitor General Beck, of Washington, D. C., for the United States.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 421-423 intentionally omitted]

Page 423

Mr. T. Catesby Jones, of New York City, for respondents Thompson and others.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 423-426 intentionally omitted]

Page 426

Mr. E. E. Blodgett, of Boston, Mass., for respondents Morton and others.

Page 427

Mr. Charles S. Haight, of New York City, for respondents Rose and others.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 427-429 intentionally omitted]

Page 429

Mr. Justice HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

These are petitions for prohibition to prevent District Courts of the United States from exercising jurisdiction of proceedings in rem for collisions that occurred while the vessels libelled were owned, absolutely or pro hac vice, by the United States, and employed in the public service. The questions arising in the three cases are so nearly the same that they can be dealt with together.

Page 430

The Western Maid was and is the property of the United States. On January 10, 1919, she was allocated by the United States Shipping Board to the War Department for service as a transport. She had been loaded with foodstuffs for the relief of the civilian population of Europe, to be delivered on arrival at Falmouth, England, to the order of the Food Administration Grain Corporation, the consignor, American Embassy, London, care of the Chief Quartermaster, American Expeditionary Forces, France; subject to the direction of Mr. Hoover. If it should prove impracticable to reship or redirect to the Territories lately held by the Central Empires, Mr. Hoover was to resell to the Allied Governments or to the Belgian Relief; the foodstuffs to be paid for by the buyer. Ths vessel was manned by a navy crew. Later on the same day, January 10, 1919, in New York harbor, the collision occurred. On March 20, 1919, the vessel was delivered to the United States Shipping Board. The libel was filed on November 8, 1919. Act of September 7, 1916, c. 451, § 9, 39 Stat. 728, 730 (Comp. St. § 8146e). The Lake Monroe, 250 U. S. 246, 39 Sup. Ct. 460, 63 L. Ed. 962. On February 20, 1920, the Government moved that it be dismissed for want of jurisdiction. The District Court overruled the motion. On April 11, 1921, the Attorney General moved for leave to file the present petition in this Court. Leave was granted and the case has been heard.

The Liberty was a pilot boat let to the United States on the bare-boat basis at a nominal rate of hire. She had been manned by a crew from the United States Navy and commissioned as a naval dispatch boat, and was employed to serve military needs in war service. The collision took place on December 24, 1917, while she was so employed, in Boston Harbor. Afterwards the vessel was redelivered to the owners and still later, on February 5, 1921, the suit now in question was brought against her. On February 14, under the Act of March 9, 1920, c. 95, § 4, 41 Stat. 525,

Page 431

the United States filed a suggestion of its interest, and also set up the above facts. The District Court held that they constituted no defence and this petition was brought by the Attorney General along with that last mentioned.

The Steamship Carolinian had been chartered to the United States upon a bare-boat charter and had been assigned to the War Department, by which she was employed as an army transport and furnished with an army crew. While she was so employed the collision took place in the harbor of Brest, France, on February 15, 1918. Afterwards the Carolinian was returned to the owners, and she was employed solely as a merchant vessel on July 9, 1920, when the suit in question was begun, under which the vessel was seized. In the same month the United States filed a suggestion of interest, and on January 6, 1921, set up the foregoing facts and prayed that the libel be dismissed. The District Court maintained its jurisdiction and this petition was brought by the Attorney General along with the other two. 270 Fed. 1011.

It may be assumed that each of these vessels might have been libelled for maritime torts committed after the redelivery that we have mentioned. But the Act of September 7, 1916, c. 451, § 9 does not create a liability on the part of the United States, retrospectively, where one did not exist before. Neither in our opinion, is such a liability created by the Act of March 9, 1920, c. 95, § 4, authorizing the United States to assume the defence in suits like these. It is not required to abandon any defence that otherwise would be good. It appears to us plain that before the passage of these acts neither the United States nor the vessels in the hands of the United States were liable to be sued for these alleged maritime torts. The Liberty and the Carolinian were employed for public and Government purposes, and were owned pro hac vice by the United States. It is suggested that the Western Maid was a merchant vessel at the time of the

Page 432

collision, but the fact that the food was to be paid for and the other details adverted to in argument cannot disguise the obvious truth, that she was engaged in a public service that was one of the constituents of our activity in the war and its sequel and that had no more to do with ordinary merchandizing than if she had carried a regiment of troops. The only question really open to debate is whether a liability attached to the ships which although dormant while the United States was in possession became enforcible as soon as the vessels came into hands that could be sued.

In deciding this question we must realize that however ancient may be the traditions of maritime law, however diverse the sources from which it has been drawn, it derives its whole and only power in this country from its having been accepted and adopted by the United States. There is no mystic over-law to which even the United States must bow. When a case is said to be governed by foreign law or by general maritime law that is only a short way of saying that for this purpose the sovereign power takes up a rule suggested from without and makes it part of its own rules. The Lottawanna, 21 Wall. 558, 571, 572, 22 L. Ed. 654; Dalrymple v. Dalrymple, 2 Hagg. Cons. 54, 58, 59; Dicey, Conflict of Laws (2d Ed.) 6, 7. Also we must realize that the authority that makes the law is itself superior to it, and that if it consents to apply to itself the rules that it applies to others the consent is free and may be withheld. The sovereign does not create justice in an ethical sense, to be sure, and there may be cases in which it would not dare to deny that justice for fear of war or revolution. Sovereignty is a question of power, and no human power is unlimited. Carino v. Insular Government of Philippine Islands, 212 U. S. 449, 458, 29 Sup. Ct. 334, 53 L. Ed. 594. But from the necessary point of view of the sovereign and its organs whatever is enforced by it as law is enforced as the

Page 433

expression of its will. Kawananakoa v. Polyblank, 205 U. S. 349, 353, 27 Sup. Ct. 526, 51 L. Ed. 834.

The United States has not consented to be sued for torts, and therefore it cannot be said that in a legal sense the United States has been guilty of a tort. For a tort is a tort in a legal sense only because the law has made it so. If then we imagine the sovereign power announcing the system of its laws in a single voice it is hard to conceive it as declaring that while it does not recognize the possibility of its acts being a legal wrong and while its immunity from such an imputation of course extends to its property, at least when employed in carrying on the operations of the Government—specifically appropriated to national objects in the language of Buchanan v. Alexander, 4 How. 20, 11 L. Ed. 857 yet if that property passes into other hands, perhaps of an innocent purchaser, it may be seized upon a claim that had no existence before. It may be said that the persons who actually did the act complained of may or might be sued and that the ship for this purpose is regarded as a person. But that is a fiction not a fact and as a fiction is the creation of the law. It would be a strange thing if the law created a fiction to accomplish the result supposed. It is totally immaterial that in dealing with private wrongs the fiction, however originated, is in force. See Liverpool, Brazil & River Plate Steam Navigation Co. v. Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal, 251 U. S. 48, 53, 40 Sup. Ct. 66, 64 L. Ed. 130. The personality of a public vessel is merged in that of the sovereign. The Fidelity, 16 Blatchford, 569, 573, Fed. Cas. No. 4,758; In re State of New York—The Queen City, 256 U. S. 503, 41 Sup. Ct. 592, 65 L. Ed. 1063, June 1, 1921.

But it is said that the decisions have recognized that an obligation is created in 573, Fed. Cas. No. 4,758, and In re State of exist but cannot be enforced are ghosts that are seen in the law but that are elusive to the grasp. The leading authority relied upon is The Siren, 7 Wall. 152, 19 L. Ed. 129.

Page 434

The ground of that decision was that when the United States came into court to enforce a claim it would be assumed to submit to just claims of third persons in respect of the same subject matter. 7 Wall. 154, 19 L. Ed. 129; Carr v. United States, 98 U. S. 433, 438, 25 L. Ed. 209. In reaching its result the Court spoke of such claims as unenforceable liens, but that was little more than a mode of expressing the consent of the sovereign power to see full justice done in such circumstances. It would have been just as effective and more accurate to speak of the claims as ethical...

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125 practice notes
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    • December 10, 1974
    ...has been the enormous growth, particularly in recent years, of 'ordinary merchandising' activity by governments. See The Western Maid, 257 U.S. 419, 432, 42 S.Ct. 159, 160, 66 L.Ed. 299. Lord Maugham in the Cristina Thus put the matter: " 'Half a century ago foreign Governments very seldom ......
  • Gould, Inc. v. Pechiney Ugine Kuhlmann, Nos. 86-3649
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    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
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    ...(rejecting date of complaint as time to determine status of defendant for purpose of defining "foreign state"). Cf. The Western Maid, 257 U.S. 419, 42 S.Ct. 159, 66 L.Ed. 299 (1922) (liability did not attach for acts occurring while ship was owned by federal government after ownership trans......
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    ...or counterclaims arising from the same transaction.") (citing The Thekla , 266 U.S. 328, 45 S.Ct. 112, 69 L.Ed. 313 ; The Western Maid , 257 U.S. 419, 42 S.Ct. 159, 66 L.Ed. 299 (1922) ).19 RRCC incorrectly points to the immunity waiver in 46 U.S.C. § 30903(a), but that statute also pertain......
  • Gray v. Bell, No. 82-1838
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    ...as Governmental Responsibility in Tort ]. See Langford v. United States, 101 U.S. 341, 342-46, 25 L.Ed. 1010 (1879). 61 The Western Maid, 257 U.S. 419, 433, 42 S.Ct. 159, 161, 66 L.Ed. 299 (1922) (Holmes, J.); Kawananakoa v. Polyblank, 205 U.S. 349, 353, 27 S.Ct. 526, 531, 51 L.Ed. 834 (190......
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125 cases
  • Gould, Inc. v. Pechiney Ugine Kuhlmann, Nos. 86-3649
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • September 27, 1988
    ...(rejecting date of complaint as time to determine status of defendant for purpose of defining "foreign state"). Cf. The Western Maid, 257 U.S. 419, 42 S.Ct. 159, 66 L.Ed. 299 (1922) (liability did not attach for acts occurring while ship was owned by federal government after ownership trans......
  • United States v. $4,480,466.16 in Funds Seized from Bank of Am. Account Ending in 2653, No. 18-10801
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (5th Circuit)
    • November 5, 2019
    ...or counterclaims arising from the same transaction.") (citing The Thekla , 266 U.S. 328, 45 S.Ct. 112, 69 L.Ed. 313 ; The Western Maid , 257 U.S. 419, 42 S.Ct. 159, 66 L.Ed. 299 (1922) ).19 RRCC incorrectly points to the immunity waiver in 46 U.S.C. § 30903(a), but that statute also pertain......
  • Florida Department of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc, No. 80-1348
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