131 US 1 United States v. Jones Same

131 U.S. 1

9 S.Ct. 669

33 L.Ed. 90


May 13, 1889.

Three suits by Carrie Jones, Henry Taubenheimer, and James B. Montgomery, respectively, against the United States, for specific performance. Demurrers to the petitions overruled, and the United States appeals.

These cases are suits in equity brought against the United States under the recent act of March 3, 1887, extending the jurisdiction of claims against the government to the district and circuit courts of the United States. They are suits for specific performance, seeking to compel the United States to issue and deliver to the plaintiffs respectively patents for timber land, alleged to have been taken up and purchased by them under the act for the sale of timber lands in the states of California, Oregon, etc., passed June 3, 1878, (20 St. 89.) The petitions contain averments of performance of the conditions required by said act, the payment of the price of the lands to the receiver of the land-office, the giving of his certificates and receipts therefor, and the refusal of the government to issue patents to the petitioners as entitled thereto. They pray in each case for a decree—First, that the petitioner is owner of the land by virtue of the purchase; and, second, that the United States issue and deliver, or cause to be issued and delivered, in accordance with law, a patent granting and conveying the land purchased. The United States, by its attorney, demurred to the several petitions. The circuit court overruled the demurrers, and rendered decrees for the plaintiffs. From these decrees the present appeals were taken.

Sol. Gen. Jenks and Asst. Atty. Gen. Howard, for appellant.

Jas. K. Kelly and Jas. C. Carter, for appellees.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 2-14 intentionally omitted]



The question involved is whether the act of March 3, 1887, which is entitled 'An act to provide for the bringing of suits against the government of the United States' (24 St. 505) authorizes suits of the kind like the present, which are brought, not for the recovery of money, but for equitable relief by specific performance, to compel the issue and delivery of a patent. In the case of U. S. v. Alire, 6 Wall. 573, we distinctly held that the acts of 1855 and 1863, which established the court of claims, and defined its jurisdiction, did not give it power to entertain any such suits as these; and that case was followed by Bonner v. U.S., 9 Wall. 156, and has been approved in subsequent cases. U.S. v. Gillis, 95 U. S. 407, 412; U. S. v. Schurz, 102 U. S. 378, 404. It is argued, however, that the new law has extended the jurisdiction of the court of claims and the concurrent jurisdiction of the circuit and district courts, or at least the latter, so as to embrace every kind of claim, equitable as well as legal, and specific relief, or a recovery of property, as well as a recovery of money. If such is the legislative will, of course the courts must conform to it, although the management and disposal of the public domain, in which the newly-claimed jurisdiction would probably be most frequently called into exercise, has always been regarded as more appropriately belonging to the political department of the government than to the courts, and more a matter of administration than judicature. A careful examination of the state, and a comparison of its terms with those of the acts of 1855 and 1863, can alone settle the question.


By the first section of the act of 1855 (10 St. 612) it was enacted that a court should be established, to be called the 'Court of Claims,' the jurisdiction of which was defined as follows: 'The said court shall hear and determine all claims founded upon any law of congress, or upon any regulation of an executive department, or upon any contract, express or implied, with the government of the United States, which may be suggested to it by a petition filed therein; and also all claims which may be referred to it by either house of congress.' The act of March 3, 1863, passed to amend the act of 1855, (12 St. 765,) added: 'That the said court * * * shall also have jurisdiction of all set-offs, counter-claims, claims for damages, whether liquidated or unliquidated, or other demands whatsoever, on the part of the government against any person making claim against the government in said court.' Jurisdiction was subsequently given of claims for the proceeds of property captured or abandoned during the Rebellion, and of claims of paymasters and other disbursing officers for relief from responsibility on account of capture of government funds or property in their hands. These latter branches of jurisdiction need not be considered here.


Turning now to the act of March 3, 1887, which re-enacted or revised the previous laws as to the jurisdiction of the court of claims, and conferred concurrent jurisdiction for limited amounts on the ordinary courts, we find the following language used: 'The court of claims shall have jurisdiction to hear and determine the following matters: First. All claims founded pon the constitution of the United States or any law of congress, except for pensions, or upon any regulation of an executive department, or upon any contract, expressed or implied, with the government of the United States, or for damages, liquidated or unliquidated, in cases not sounding in tort, in respect of which claims the party would be entitled to redress against the United States either in a court of law, equity, or admiralty, if the United States were suable. * * * Second. All set-offs, counter-claims, claims for damages, whether liquidated or unliquidated, or other demands whatsoever on the part of the government of the United States against any claimant against the government in said court.' 'Sec. 2. That the district courts of the United States shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the court of claims as to all matters named in the preceding section where the amount of the claim does not exceed one thousand dollars, and the circuit courts of the United States shall have such concurrent jurisdiction in all cases where the amount of such claim exceeds one thousand dollars, and does not exceed ten thousand dollars.' The jurisdiction here given to the court of claims is precisely the same as that given in the acts of 1855 and 1863, with the addition that it is extended to 'damages * * * in cases not sounding in tort' and to claims for which redress may be had 'either in a court of law, equity, or admiralty.' 'Damages in cases not sounding in tort'—that is to say, damages for breach of contract—had already been held to be recoverable against the government under the former acts. U. S. v. Behan, 110 U. S. 338, 4 Sup. Ct. Rep. 81; U. S. v. Manufacturing Co., 112 U. S. 645, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 306; Hollister v. Manufacturing Co., 113 U. S. 59, 67, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 717. 'Claims' redressible 'in a court of law, equity, or admiralty,' may be claims for money only, or they may be claims for property or specific relief, according as the context of the statute may require or allow. The claims referred to in the original statute of 1855, as described in the first section thereof, above quoted, might have included claims for other things besides money; but various provisions of that act and of the act of March 3, 1863, were inconsistent with the enforcement of any claims under the law except claims for money. Thus, in the fifth section of the act of 1863, the right of appeal was limited to cases in which the amount in controversy exceeded $3,000, and in the seventh section it was provided that if judgment should be given in favor of the claimant, the sum due thereby should be paid out of any general appropriation made by law for the payment of private claims; and, if a judgment was affirmed on appeal, interest was to be allowed thereon, etc. In the case of U. S. v. Alire, 6 Wall. 573, Mr. Justice NELSON, speaking for the court, said: 'It will be seen by the above reference which we have made to the two acts of congress on this subject that the only judgments which the court of claims are authorized to render against the government, or over which the supreme court have any jurisdiction on appeal, or for the payment of which by the secretary of the treasury any provision is made, are judgments for money found due from the government to the petitioner. And although it is true that the subject-matter over which jurisdiction is conferred, both in the act of 1855 and of 1863, would admit of a much more extended cognizance of cases, yet it is quite clear that the limited power given to render a judgment necessarily retains the general terms, and confines the subject-matter to cases in which the petitioner sets up a moneyed demand as due from the government.' The decree of the court of claims in that case was that the claimant recover of the government a military land warrant for 160 acres of land, and that it be made out and delivered to him by the proper officer. This court said: 'We find no provision in any of the statutes requiring a judgment of this character, whether in this court or in the court of claims, to be obeyed or satisfied.'


The sections of the act of 1863 referred to in this opinion are still in force, not being repealed by the act of 1887, which only repeals 'all laws and parts of laws inconsistent' therewith. Section 5, relating to appeals, is transferred to section 707 of the Revised Statutes, giving an appeal to this court 'where the amount in controversy exceeds $3,000;' and section 7, relating to the mode of paying judgments out of a general appropriation, and allowing interest where a judgment is affirmed, is contained in sections 1089, 1090 of the Revised Statutes. These sections are still the law on the subjects to which they relate, being necessary to the completion of the system, and not being supplied by any other enactments. Indeed, they are expressly retained. The fourth section of the act of 1887 declares that 'the jurisdiction of the respective courts of the United States proceeding under this act, including the right of exception and appeal, shall be governed by the law now in force, in so far as the same is applicable, and not inconsistent with the provisions of this act;' and the ninth section declares 'that the plaintiff or the United States, in any suit brought under the provisions of this act, shall have the same rights of appeal or writ of error as are now reserved in the statutes of the United States in that behalf made, and upon the conditions and limitations therein contained.' These provisions undoubtedly include the court of claims as well as the district and circuit courts. So, in relation to interest, section 10 declares that 'from the date of such final judgment or decree interest shall be computed thereon at the rate of four per cent. per annum, until the time when an appropriation is made for the payment of the judgment or decree.' It seems, therefore, that in the point of providing only for money decrees and money judgments, the law is unchanged, merely being so extended as to include claims for money arising out of equitable and maritime as well as legal demands. We do not think that it was the intention of congress to go further than this. Had it been, some provision would have been made for carrying into execution decrees for specific performance, or for delivering the possession of property recovered in kind. The general scope and purport of the act are against any further extension than that here indicated. The expression in the fifth section, referring to 'money or any other thing claimed, or the damages sought to be recovered,' on which so much reliance is placed by the appellees, cannot outweigh the considerations referred to, and operate to introduce entirely new fields of jurisdiction. It is one of those general expressions which must be restrained by the more special and definite indications of intention furnished by the context. We cannot yield to the suggestion that any broader jurisdiction as to subjectmatter is given to the circuit and district courts than that which is given to the court of claims. It is clearly the same jurisdiction—'concurrent jurisdiction' only within certain limits as to amount; and the language in which those limits are expressed furnishes an additional argument in favor of the conclusion which we have reached. It is declared 'that the district courts of the United States shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the court of claims * * * where the amount of the claim does not exceed $1,000,' etc. This language is properly applicable only to a money claim. Had anything but money been in the legislative mind the language would have been, 'where the amount or value of the thing claimed does not exceed $1,000,' etc.


Of course, our province is construction only; the policy of the law is the prerogative of the legislative department. But, notwithstanding the glowing terms in which able jurists have spoken of the progress of civilization and enlightened government as exhibited in subjecting government itself, equally with individuals, to the jurisdict on of its own courts, we should have been somewhat surprised to find that the administration of vast public interests, like that of the public lands, which belong so appropriately to the political department, had been cast upon the courts,—which it surely would have been, if such a wide door had been opened for suing the government to obtain patents and establish land claims, as the counsel for the appellees in these cases seems to imagine. We are satisfied that the door has not yet been thrown open thus wide. The decrees of the court are reversed in all the cases, and the causes are respectively remanded, with instructions to dismiss the original petitions or bills.

MILLER, J., (dissenting.)


I find myself unable to concur with the majority of the court in the construction given by it in the opinion just read to the provisions of the act of March 3, 1887. This act was evidently intended to confer a new and important jurisdiction upon the court of claims, and a concurrent jurisdiction, to a limited extent, in the same class of cases, upon the circuit and district courts of the United States. I can see no other possible object in that part of the statute which confers this new jurisdiction by the use of language which for the first time in the history of that court authorizes it to take cognizance of claims where the party would be entitled to redress against the United States, either in a court of law, equity, or admiralty, if the United States were suable, than to make them suable in such cases. To hold that the distinct grant of power here provided for is controlled by the fact that this court has under former statutes decided that it did not then exist, is simply to nullify this new grant of power. The manifest purpose of this new act was to confer power which the court of claims did not previously have, and to authorize it to take jurisdiction of a class of cases of which it had not cognizance before. To say that under such circumstances the new statute is to be crippled and rendered ineffectual in the only new feature which it has, in regard to the jurisdiction of that court, is, in my mind, a refusal to obey the law as made by congress in the matter in which its power is undisputed. It is clear to me that congress intended by this act to enlarge very materially the right of suit against the United States, to facilitate this right by allowing suits to be brought in the circuit and district courts where the parties resided, and that it also designed to enlarge the remedy in the court of claims to meet all such cases in law, equity, and admiralty against the United States, as would be cognizable in such courts against individuals.


I am authorized to say that Mr. Justice FIELD agrees with me in this dissent.


Reversing 35 Fed. Rep. 561.


Reversing 36 Fed. Rep. 4.