CRENSHAW V. UNITED STATES, 134 U. S. 99 (1890)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Crenshaw v. United States, 134 U.S. 99 (1890)

Crenshaw v. United States

No. 1081

Argued January 6, 1890

Decided March 3, 1890

134 U.S. 99


The provision in the Naval Appropriation Act of August 5, 1882, c. 391, § 1, which directs in certain cases the honorable discharge of naval cadets from the navy with one year's sea pay is not in conflict with the contract clause of the Constitution of the United States.

An officer in the army or navy of the United States does not hold his office by contract, but at the will of the sovereign power.

It is not within the power of a legislature to deprive its successor of the power of repealing an act creating a public office.

This is an action brought by the appellant, James D. Crenshaw, in the Court of Claims for the purpose of recovering an alleged balance of $3,763.66 due him on account of salary as a midshipman in the United States Navy. The Court of Claims dismissed the appellant's petition, 24 Ct.Cl. 57, and an appeal from that judgment brings the case here.

Page 134 U. S. 100

The material facts in the case are as follows:

In September, 1877, the appellant was appointed a cadet midshipman at the Naval Academy. At that time, the provisions of the Revised Statutes in force and pertinent to this inquiry were as follows:

"SEC. 1520. The academic course of cadet midshipmen shall be six years."

"SEC. 1521. When cadet midshipmen shall have passed successfully the graduating examination at the academy, they shall receive appointments as midshipmen, and shall take rank according to their proficiency, as shown by the order of their merit at date of graduation."

"SEC. 1556. The commissioned officers and warrant officers on the active list of the Navy of the United States, and the petty officers, seamen, . . . shall be entitled to receive annual pay at the rates herein stated after their respective designations: . . . Midshipmen, after graduation, when at sea, one thousand dollars; on shore duty, eight hundred dollars; on leave, or waiting orders, six hundred dollars. Cadet midshipmen, five hundred dollars."

"SEC. 1229. The President is authorized to drop from the rolls of the army, for desertion, any officer who is absent from duty three months without leave, and no officer so dropped shall be eligible for reappointment. And no officer in the military or naval service shall, in time of peace, be dismissed from service except upon and in pursuance of the sentence of a court-martial to that effect or in commutation thereof."

The appellant accepted the appointment, and entered on his studies at the academy. He completed the course of four years and, after passing a successful examination, received a certificate from the academic board in the following words, to-wit:

"This certifies that Cadet Midshipman James D. Crenshaw has completed the prescribed course of study at the United States Naval Academy, and has successfully passed the required examination before the academic board preparatory to the two-years course afloat. June 10, 1881. "

Page 134 U. S. 101

On the 25th of August following, appellant was ordered to sea by the Navy Department, and directed to report for duty on board the steamer Pensacola. This he did. While he was serving on that steamer under the aforesaid order, Congress passed an Act, approved August 5, 1882, being the naval appropriation act, in which occurs this proviso:

"That hereafter there shall be no appointments of cadet midshipmen or cadet engineers at the Naval Academy, but in lieu thereof, naval cadets shall be appointed from each congressional district, and at large, as now provided by law for cadet midshipmen, and all the undergraduates at the Naval Academy shall hereafter be designated and called 'naval cadets,' and from those who successfully complete the six-years course, appointments shall hereafter be made as it is necessary to fill vacancies in the lower grades of the line and engineer corps of the navy and of the marine corps, and provided further that no greater number of appointments into these grades shall be made each very than shall equal the number of vacancies which has occurred in the same grades during the preceding year, of vacancies which has occurred in the graduates of the year at the conclusion of their six-years course, in the order of merit, as determined by the academic board of the Naval Academy, the assignment to the various corps to be made by the Secretary of the Navy upon the recommendation of the academic board. But nothing herein contained shall reduce the number of appointments from such graduates below ten in each year, nor deprive of such appointment any graduate who may complete the six-years course during the year eighteen hundred and eighty-two. And if there be a surplus of graduates, those who do not receive such appointment shall be given a certificate of graduation, an honorable discharge, and one year's sea pay, as now provided by law for cadet midshipmen,"

etc. 22 Stat. 284, 285.

As stated above, this statute was passed while appellant was engaged in his service on the Pensacola. He continued on that vessel until the 14th of March, 1883, when he was ordered to report to the Superintendent of the Naval Academy

Page 134 U. S. 102

for examination. He proceeded to the academy, passed his final examination successfully, and, on the 15th of June, 1883, received from the academic board his certificate of graduation, reciting that

"We, the academic board of the United States Naval Academy, having thoroughly examined Naval Cadet James D. Crenshaw on all subjects, theoretical and practical, taught at this institution, and having found him proficient in each, do hereby, in conformity with the law, grant to him this certificate of graduation. June 15, 1883."

On the 23d of June following, he received this order:

"Navy Department, Bureau of Navigation and Office of Detail"

"Washington, June 23, 1883"

"Sir: You are hereby detached from the Naval Academy. Proceed home, and regard yourself waiting orders."

"By direction of the Secretary of the Navy."


"J. E. WALLER, Chief of Bureau"

On the 26th of the same month, an order as follows was issued:

"Sir: Having successfully completed your six years' course at the United States Naval Academy, and having been given a certificate of graduation by the academic board, but not being required to fill any vacancy in the service happening during the year preceding your graduation, you are hereby discharged from the 30th of June, 1883, with one year's sea pay as prescribed by law for cadet midshipmen, in accordance with the provisions of the Act approved August 5, 1882."

"Respectfully, W. E. CHANDLER, Secretary of the Navy"

"Naval Cadet James D. Crenshaw, U.S. Navy."

Since the date of that order, appellant has not been called on to do duty, and has not received any pay except that credited on his claim. In this state of the case, he claims that he is still a midshipman in the naval service, and, as such, entitled to pay. This claim is based upon the following propositions:

Page 134 U. S. 103

(1) That when he accepted the appointment of cadet midshipman, he became an officer of the navy, and, as such, entitled to the benefits of section 1229, and Art. 36 of section 1624 (which is to the same effect) of the Revised Statutes; that such acceptance constituted a statutory contract with the United States, based on a valuable consideration, under which he is entitled to hold the office for life unless removed by sentence of a court-martial or in commutation thereof.

(2) That he was not therefore discharged by competent authority, because, first, since the reenactment by Congress, in 1874, of section 1229 and Art. 36 of section 1624 of the Revised Statutes, neither Congress, the Secretary of the Navy, nor any department of the government is competent, in time of peace, to discharge an officer from the naval service.

(3) That independently of the Act of July 13, 1866, 14 Stat. 92, c. 176, § 5 (section 1229 and Art. 36 of section 1624 aforesaid), the act of 1882 is unconstitutional as applied to him for the reason that he held an office by contract with the United States and was entitled on graduation to be a midshipman to serve for life or during good behavior.

(4) That not only was the Act of August 5, 1882, inoperative as to him for the reason stated, but also for the further reason that to apply it to his class would be to make Congress appoint to the office of naval cadet all such students as were in his situation; but that, while Congress had the power under the Constitution to create the office, it did not have the power to designate the officers, that being the constitutional duty of the executive, and

(5) that the case of appellant did not fall within the terms of the act of 1882; that he was not at the date of its passage an undergraduate of the academy, but had graduated, and that therefore his discharge was not authorized by that act.

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