United States v. Fisher Blight

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation2 Cranch 358,6 U.S. 358,2 L.Ed. 304
PartiesThe UNITED STATES v. FISHER et al. assignees of BLIGHT, a bankrupt
Decision Date01 February 1805

6 U.S. 358
2 Cranch 358
2 L.Ed. 304
FISHER et al. assignees of BLIGHT, a bankrupt.
February Term, 1805

ERROR to the circuit court of Pennsylvania.

This writ of error was prosecuted by the United States who were plaintiffs in the court below.

The questions submitted to the court, in the argument upon the writ of error, were:

1. Whether an attachment laid by the United States, on property of the bankrupt in the hands of the collector of Newport in Rhode Island, after the commission of bankruptcy had issued, is available against the assignees?

2. Whether the United States are entitled to be first paid and satisfied, in preference to the private creditors, a debt due to the United States by Peter Blight, as indorser of a foreign bill of exchange, out of the estate of the bankrupt in the hands of his assignees?

[Argument of Counsel from pages 359-384 intentionally omitted]

Page 385

Mr.Chief Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the court.

The question in this case is, whether the United States, as holders of a protested bill of exchange, which has been negotiated in the ordinary course of trade, are entitled to be preferred to the general creditors, where the debtor becomes bankrupt?

The claim to this preference is founded on the fifth section of the act, entitled, 'an act to provide more effectually for the settlement of accounts between the United States and receivers of public money.' The section is in these words, 'and be it further enacted that where any revenue officer or other person, hereafter becoming indebted to the United States, by bond or otherwise, shall become insolvent, or where the estate of any deceased debtor, in the hands of executors or administrators, shall be insufficient to pay all the debts due from the deceased, the debt due to the United States shall be first satisfied; and the priority hereby established, shall be deemed to extend, as well to cases in which a debtor, not having sufficient property to pay all his debts, shall make a voluntary assignment thereof, or in which the estate and effects of an absconding, concealed, or absent debtor, shall be attached, by process of law, as to cases in which an act of legal bankruptcy shall be committed.

That these words, taken in their natural and usual sense, would embrace the case before the court, seems not to be controverted. 'Any revenue officer, or other person, hereafter becoming indebted to the United States by bond or otherwise,' is a description of persons, which, if neither explained nor restricted by other words or circumstances, would comprehend every debtor of the public, however his debt might have been contracted.

Page 386

But other parts of the act involve this question in much embarrassment.

It is undoubtedly a well established principle in the exposition of statutes, that every part is to be considered, and the intention of the legislature to be extracted from the whole. It is also true, that where great inconvenience will result from a particular construction, that construction is to be avoided, unless the meaning of the legislature be plain; in which case it must be obeyed.

On the abstract principles which govern courts in construing legislative acts, no difference of opinion can exist. It is only in the application of those principles that the difference discovers itself.

As the enacting clause in this case would plainly give the United States the preference they claim, it is incumbent on those who oppose that preference, to show an intent varying from that which the words import. In doing this, the whole act has been critically examined; and it has been contended, with great ingenuity, that every part of it demonstrates the legislative mind to have been directed towards a class of debttors, entirely different from those who become so by drawing or indorsing bills, in the ordinary course of business.

The first part which has been resorted to is the title. On the influence which the title ought to have in construing the enacting clauses, much has been said; and yet it is not easy to discern the point of difference between the opposing counsel in this respect. Neither party contends that the title of an act can control plain words in the body of the statute; and neither denies that, taken with other parts, it may assist in removing ambiguities. Where the intent is plain, nothing is left to construction. Where the mind labours to discover the design of the legislature, it seizes every thing from which aid can be derived; and in such case the title claims a degree of notice, and will have its due share of consideration.

The title of the act is unquestionably limited to 're-

Page 387

ceivers of public money;' a term which undoubtedly excludes the defendants in the resent case.

The counsel for the defendants have also completely succeeded in demonstrating that the four first sections of this act relate only to particular classes of debtors, among whom the drawer and indorser of a protested bill of exchange would not be comprehended. Wherever general words have been used in these sections, they are restrained by the subject to which they relate, and by other words frequently in the same sentence, to particular objects, so as to make it apparent that they were employed by the legislature in a limited sense. Hence it has been argued with great strength of reasoning, that the same restricted interpretation ought to be given to the fifth section likewise.

If the same reason for that interpretation exists; if the words of the act generally, or the particular provisions of this section, afford the same reason for limiting its operation which is afforded with respect to those which precede it, then its operation must be limited to the same objects.

The fifth section relates entirely to the priority claimed by the United States in the payment of debts.

On the phraseology of this act it has been observed, that there is a circuity of expression, which would not have been used if the intention of the legislature had been to establish its priority in all cases whatever. Instead of saying 'any revenue officer or other person hereafter becoming indebted to the United States,' the natural mode of expressing such an intent would have been 'any person indebted to the United States;' and hence it has been inferred that debtors of a particular description only were in the mind of the legislature.

It is true the mode of expression which has been suggested is at least as appropriate as that which has been used; but between the two there is no difference of meaning; and it cannot be pretended that the natural sense of words is to be disregarded, because that which they import might have been better or more directly expressed.

Page 388

As a branch of this argument, it has also been said that the description commences with the very words which are used in the beginning of the first section; and from that circumstance it has been inferred that the same class of cases was still in view. The commencing words of each section are, 'any revenue officer or other person.' But the argument drawn from this source, if the subject be pursued further, seems to operate against the defendants. In the first section the words are, 'any revenue officer or other person accountable for public money.' With this expression completely in view, and having used it in part, the description would probably have been adopted throughout, had it been the intention of the legislature to describe the same class of debtors. But it is immediately dropped, and more comprehensive words are employed. For persons 'accountable for public money,' persons 'hereafter becoming indebted to the United States, by bond or otherwise' are substituted. This change of language strongly implies an intent to change the object of legislation.

But the great effort on the part of the defendants is to connect the fifth with the four preceding sections; and to prove that as the general words in those sections are restricted to debtors of a particular description, the general words of the fifth section ought also to be restricted to debtors of the same description. On this point lies the stress of the cause.

In the analysis of the foregoing parts of the act, the counsel for the defendants have shown that the general terms which have been used are uniformly connected with other words in the same section, and frequently in the same sentence, which necessarily restrict them. They have also shown that the provisions of those parts of the act are of such a nature that the words, taking the natural import of the whole sentence together, plainly form provisions only adapted to a class of cases which those words describe if used in a limited sense.

It may be added that the four first sections of the act are connected with each other, and plainly contain provisions on the same subject. They all relate to the

Page 389

mode of proceeding on suits instituted in courts, and each section regulates a particular branch of that proceeding. Where the class of suits is described in the first section, it is natural to suppose that the subsequent regulations respecting suits apply to those which have been described.

The first section directs that suits shall be instituted against revenue officers and other persons accountable for public money, and imposes a penalty on delinquents, where a suit shall be commenced and prosecuted to judgment.

The second section directs that certain testimony shall be admitted at the trial of the cause.

The third section prescribes the condition under which a continuance may be granted. And

The fourth section respects the testimony which may be produced by the defendant. These are all parts of the same subject; and there is strong reason, independent of the language of the act, to suppose that the provisions respecting them were designed to be co-extensive with each other.

But the fifth section is...

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