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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Ferreira, 54 U.S. 13 How. 40 40 (1851)

United States v. Ferreira

54 U.S. (13 How.) 40




The treaty of 1819 between the United States and Spain contains the following stipulation, viz.:

"The United States shall cause satisfaction to be made for the injuries, if any, which by process of law shall be established to have been suffered by the Spanish officers and individual Spanish inhabitants by the late operations of the American army in Florida."

Congress, by two acts passed in 1823 and 1834, 3 Stat. 768, and 6 Stat. 569, directed the judge of the territorial court of Florida to receive, examine, and adjudge all cases of claims for losses, and report his decisions, if in favor of the claimants, together with the evidence upon which they were founded, to the Secretary of the Treasury, who, on being satisfied that the same was just and equitable within the provisions of the treaty, should pay the amount thereof, and by an Act of 1849, 9 Stat. 788, Congress directed the judge of the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida to receive and adjudicate certain claims in the manner directed by the preceding acts.

From the award of the district judge an appeal does not lie to this Court.

As the treaty itself designated no tribunal to assess the damages, it remained for Congress to do so by referring the claims to a commissioner according to the established practice of the government in such cases. His decision was not the judgment of a court, but a mere award, with a power to review it conferred upon the Secretary of the Treasury.

(MR. JUSTICE WAYNE did not sit in this cause.)

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

Page 54 U. S. 44

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TANEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This purports to be an appeal from the District Court of the

Page 54 U. S. 45

United States for the Northern District of Florida. The case brought before the court is this:

The treaty of 1819 by which Spain ceded Florida to the United States, contains the following stipulation in the 9th article.

"The United States shall cause satisfaction to be made for the injuries if any, which by process of law shall be established to have been suffered by the Spanish officers and individual Spanish inhabitants by the late operations of the American army in Florida."

In 1823, Congress passed an act to carry into execution this article of the treaty. The 1st section of this law authorizes the judges of the superior courts established at St. Augustine and Pensacola, respectively, to receive and adjust all claims arising within their respective jurisdictions agreeably to the provisions of the article of the treaty above mentioned, and the 2d section provides

"That in all cases where the judges shall decide in favor of the claimants the decisions, with the evidence on which they are founded, shall be by the said judges reported to the Secretary of the Treasury, who on being satisfied that the same is just and equitable within the provisions of the treaty, shall pay the amount thereof to the person or persons in whose favor the same is adjudged."

Under this law, the Secretary of the Treasury held that it did not apply to injuries suffered from the causes mentioned in the treaty of 1812 and 1813, but to those of a subsequent period. And in consequence of this decision, another law was passed in 1834 extending the provisions of the former act to injuries suffered in 1812 and 1813, but limiting the time for presenting the claims to one year from the passage of the act. This law embraced the claim of the present claimant.

He did not, however, present his claim within the time limited. And in 1849 a special law was passed authorizing the district judge of the United States for the Northern District of Florida to receive and adjudicate this claim and that of certain other persons mentioned in the law, under the act of 1834; the several claims to be settled by the Treasury as in other cases under the said act. Florida had become a state of the Union in 1849, and therefore the district judge was substituted in the place of the territorial officer.

Ferreira presented his claim according to the district judge, who took the testimony offered to support it, and decided that the amount stated in the proceedings was due to him. The district attorney of the United States, prayed an appeal to this Court from this decision, and under that prayer the case has been docketed here as an appeal from the district court.

Page 54 U. S. 46

The only question now before us is whether we have any jurisdiction in the case. And in order to determine that question, we must examine the nature of the proceeding before the district judge and the character of the decision from which this appeal has been taken.

The treaty certainly created no tribunal by which these damages were to be adjusted, and gives no authority to any court of justice to inquire into or adjust the amount which the United States were to pay to the respective parties who had suffered damage from the causes mentioned in the treaty. It rested with Congress to provide one according to the treaty stipulation. But when that tribunal was appointed, it derived its whole authority from the law creating it, and not from the treaty, and Congress had the right to regulate its proceedings and limit its power, and to subject its decisions to the control of an appellate tribunal if it deemed it advisable to do so.

Undoubtedly Congress was bound to provide such a tribunal as the treaty described. But if they failed to fulfill that promise, it is a question between the United States and Spain. The tribunal created to adjust the claims cannot change the mode of proceeding or the character in which the law authorizes it to act under any opinion it may entertain that a different mode of proceeding or a tribunal of a different character would better comport with the provisions of the treaty. If it acts at all, it acts under the authority of the law, and must obey the law.

The territorial judges therefore, in adjusting these claims, derived their authority altogether from the laws above mentioned, and their decisions can be entitled to no higher respect or authority than these laws gave them. They are referred by the act of 1823, to the treaty for the description of the injury which the law requires them to adjust, but not to enlarge the power which the law confers nor to change the character in which the law authorizes them to act.

The law of 1823, therefore, and not the stipulations of the treaty, furnishes the rule for the proceeding of the territorial judges and determines their character. And it is manifest that this power to decide upon the validity of these claims is not conferred on them as a judicial function, to be exercised in the ordinary forms of a court of justice. For there is to be no suit; no parties in the legal acceptance of the term, are to be made, no process to issue, and no one is authorized to appear on behalf of the United States or to summon witnesses in the case. The proceeding is altogether ex parte, and all that the judge is required to do is to receive the claim when the party presents it and to adjust it upon such evidence as he may have before him or be able himself to obtain. But neither the evidence nor

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his award is to be filed in the court in which he presides, nor recorded there; but he is required to transmit both the decision and the evidence upon which he decided to the Secretary of the Treasury, and the claim is to be paid if the Secretary thinks it just and equitable, but not otherwise. It is to be a debt from the United States upon the decision of the Secretary, but not upon that of the judge.

It is too evident for argument on the subject that such a tribunal is not a judicial one and that the act of Congress did not intend to make it one. The authority conferred on the respective judges was nothing more than that of a commissioner to adjust certain claims against the United States, and the office of judges and their respective jurisdictions are referred to in the law merely as a designation of the persons to whom the authority is confided and the territorial limits to which it extends. The decision is not the judgment of a court of justice. It is the award of a commissioner. The act of 1834 calls it an award. And an appeal to this Court from such a decision by such an authority from the judgment of a court of record would be an anomaly in the history of jurisprudence. An appeal might as well have been taken from the awards of the board of commissioners under the Mexican treaty, which were recently sitting in this city.

Nor can we see any ground for objection to the power of revision and control given to the Secretary of the Treasury. When the United States consents to submit the adjustment of claims against them to any tribunal, it has a right to prescribe the conditions on which it will pay. And it had a right, therefore, to make the approval of the award by the Secretary of the Treasury, one of the conditions upon which they would agree to be liable. No claim, therefore, is due from the United States until it is sanctioned by him, and his decision against the claimant for the whole or a part of a claim as allowed by the judge is final and conclusive. It cannot afterwards be disturbed by an appeal to this or any other court, or in any other way, without the authority of an act of Congress.

It is said, however, on the part of the claimant that the treaty requires that the injured parties should have an opportunity of establishing their claims by a process of law, that process of law means a judicial proceeding in a court of justice, and that the right of supervision given to the Secretary over the decision of the district judge is therefore a violation of the treaty.

The Court thinks differently, and that the government of this country is not liable to the reproach of having broken its faith with Spain. The tribunals established are substantially the same with those usually created, where one nation agrees by

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treaty to pay debts or damages which may be found to be due to the citizens of another country. This treaty meant nothing more than the tribunal and mode of proceeding ordinarily established on such occasions, and well known and well understood when treaty obligations of this description are undertaken. But if it were admitted to be otherwise, it is a question between Spain and that department of the government which is charged with our foreign relations, and with which the judicial branch has no concern. Certainly the tribunal which acts under the law of Congress and derives all its authority from it cannot call in question the validity of its provisions nor claim absolute and final power for its decisions when the law by virtue of which the decisions are made declares that they shall not be final, but subordinate to that of the Secretary of the Treasury and subject to his reversal.

And if the judicial branch of the government had the right to look into the construction of the treaty in this respect, and was of opinion that it required a judicial proceeding, and that the power given to the Secretary was void as in violation of the treaty, it would hardly strengthen the case of the claimant on this appeal. For the proceedings before the judge are as little judicial in their character as that before the Secretary. And if his decisions are void on that account, the decisions of the judge are open to the same objections, and neither the principal nor interest nor any part of this claim could be paid at the Treasury. For if the tribunal is unauthorized, the awards are of no value.

The powers conferred by these acts of Congress upon the judge as well as the Secretary are, it is true, judicial in their nature. For judgment and discretion must be exercised by both of them. But it is nothing more than the power ordinarily given by law to a commissioner appointed to adjust claims to lands or money under a treaty or special powers to inquire into or decide any other particular class of controversies in which the public or individuals may be concerned. A power of this description may constitutionally be conferred on a secretary as well as on a commissioner. But is not judicial in either case in the sense in which judicial power is granted by the Constitution to the courts of the United States.

The proceeding we are now considering did not take place before one of the territorial judges, but before a district judge of the United States. But that circumstance can make no difference. For the act of 1849, authorizes him to receive and adjudicate the claims of the persons mentioned in the law, under the act of 1834, and provides that these claims may be settled by the Treasury as other cases under the said act. It conferred on the district judge, therefore, the same power and the same character

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and imposed on him the same duty that had been conferred and imposed on the territorial judges before Florida became a state.

It would seem, indeed, in this case that the district judge acted under the erroneous opinion that he was exercising judicial power strictly speaking under the Constitution, and has given to these proceedings as much of the form of proceedings in a court of justice as was practicable. A petition in form is filed by the claimant, and the judge states in his opinion that the district attorney appeared for the United States and argued the case and prayed an appeal. But the acts of Congress require no petition. The claimant had nothing to do but to present his claim to the judge with the vouchers and evidence to support it. The district attorney had no right to enter an appearance for the United States so as to make them a party to the proceedings and to authorize a judgment against them. It was no doubt his duty as a public officer, if he knew of any evidence against the claim or of any objection to the evidence produced by the claimant, to bring it before the judge in order that he might consider it, and report it to the Secretary. But the acts of Congress certainly do not authorize him to convert a proceeding before a commissioner into judicial one, nor to bring an appeal from his award before this Court.

The question as to the character in which a judge acts in a case of this description is not a new one. It arose as long ago as 1792, in Hayburn's Case, 2 Dall. 409.

The Act of 23 March in that year required the circuit courts of the United States to examine into the claims of the officers and soldiers and seamen of the Revolution, to the pensions granted to invalids by that act, and to determine the amount of pay that would be equivalent to the disability incurred, and to certify their opinion to the Secretary of War. And it authorized the Secretary, when he had cause to suspect imposition or mistake, to withhold the pension allowed by the court and to report the case to Congress at its next session. The authority was given to the circuit courts, and a question arose whether the power conferred was a judicial one which the circuit courts as such could constitutionally exercise.

The question was not decided in the supreme court in the case above mentioned. But the opinions of the judges of the circuit courts for the Districts of New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina are all given in a note to the case by the reporter.

The judges in the New York Circuit, composed of Chief Justice Jay, Justice Cushing and Duane, District Judge, held that the power could not be exercised by them as a court. But in

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consideration of the meritorious and benevolent object of the law, they agreed to construe the power as conferred on them individually as commissioners, and to adjourn the court over from time to time so as to enable them to perform the duty in the character of commissioners, and out of court.

The judges of the Pennsylvania Circuit, consisting of Wilson and Blair, Justices of the Supreme Court, and Peters, District Judge, refused to execute it altogether upon the ground that it was conferred on them as a court, and was not a judicial power when subject to the revision of the Secretary of War and Congress.

The judges of the Circuit Court of North Carolina, composed of Iredell Justice of the Supreme Court, and Sitgreaves, District Judge, were of opinion that the court could not execute it as a judicial power, and held it under advisement whether they might not construe the act as an appointment of the judges personally as commissioners, and perform the duty in the character of commissioners out of court, as had been agreed on by the judges of the New York Circuit.

These opinions, it appears by the report in 2 Dallas, were all communicated to the President, and the motion for a mandamus in Hayburn's Case, at the next term of the Supreme Court, would seem to have been made merely for the purpose of having it judicially determined in this Court whether the judges under that law were authorized to act in the character of commissioners. For every judge of the court, except Thomas Johnson, whose opinion is not given, had formally expressed his opinion in writing that the duty imposed, when the decision was subject to the revision of a Secretary and of Congress, could not be executed by the court as a judicial power, and the only question upon which there appears to have been any difference of opinion was whether it might not be construed as conferring the power on the judges personally as commissioners. And if it would bear that construction, there seems to have been no doubt at that time but that they might constitutionally exercise it, and the Secretary constitutionally revise their decisions. The law, however, was repealed at the next session of the legislature, and a different way provided for the relief of the pensioners, and the question as to the construction of the law was not decided in the Supreme Court. But the repeal of the act clearly shows that the President and Congress acquiesced in the correctness of the decision that it was not a judicial power.

This law is the same in principle with the one we are now considering, with this difference only that the act of 1792 imposed the duty on the court eo nomine, and not personally on the judges. In the case before us, it is imposed upon the judge, and

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it appears from the note to the Case of Hayburn that a majority of the Judges of the Supreme Court were of opinion that if the law of 1792 had conferred the power on the judges, they would have held that it was given to them personally by that description, and would have performed the duty as commissioners, subject to the revision and control of the Secretary and Congress, as provided in the law. Nor have Justices Wilson, Blair, and Peters, District Judges, dissented from this opinion. Their communication to the President is silent upon this point. But the opinions of all the judges embrace distinctly and positively the provisions of the law now before, us, and declare that, under such a law, the power was not judicial within the grant of the Constitution, and could not be exercised as such.

Independently of these objections, we are at some loss to understand how this case could legally be transmitted to this Court and certified as the transcript of a record in the district court. According to the directions of the act of Congress, the decision of the judge and the evidence on which it is founded ought to have been transmitted to the Secretary of the Treasury. They are not to remain in the district court nor to be recorded there. They legally belong to the office of the Secretary of the Treasury, and not to the court, and a copy from the clerk of the latter would not be evidence in any court of justice. There is no record of the proceedings in the district court of which a transcript can legally be made and certified, and consequently there is no transcript now before us that we an recognize as evidence of any proceeding or judgment in that court.

A question might arise whether commissioners appointed to adjust these claims are not officers of the United States within the meaning of the Constitution. The duties to be performed are entirely alien to the legitimate functions of a judge or court of justice, and have no analogy to the general or special powers ordinarily and legally conferred on judges or courts to secure the due administration of the laws. And if they are to be regarded as officers holding offices under the government, the power of appointment is in the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and Congress could not by law designate the persons to fill these offices. And if this be the construction of the Constitution, then as the judge designated could not act in a judicial character as a court, nor as a commissioner, because he was not appointed by the President, everything that has been done under the acts of 1823, and 1834, and 1849 would be void, and the payments heretofore made might be recovered back by the United States. But this question has not been made, nor does it arise in the case. It could arise only in a suit by the United States to recover back the money. And

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as the case does not present it and the parties interested are not before the Court, and these laws have for so many years been acted on as valid and constitutional, we do not think it proper to express an opinion upon it. In the case at bar, the power of the judge to decide in the first instance is assumed on both sides, and the controversy has turned upon the power of the Secretary to revise it, and it is in this aspect of the case that it has been considered by the Court in the foregoing opinion.

The appeal must be

Dismissed for want of jurisdiction.


This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the District Court of the United States for the Northern District of Florida and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof it is now here ordered, adjudged, and decreed by this Court that this cause be, and the same is hereby dismissed for the want of jurisdiction.


Since the aforegoing opinion was delivered, the attention of the Court has been drawn to the case of United States v. Yale Todd, which arose under the act of 1792 and was decided in the Supreme Court February 17, 1794. There was no official reporter at that time, and this case has not been printed. It shows the opinion of the Court upon a question which was left in doubt by the opinions of the different judges, stated in the note to Hayburn's Case. And as the subject is one of much interest, and concerns the nature and extent of judicial power, the substance of the decision in Yale Todd's Case is inserted here in order that it may not be overlooked if similar questions should hereafter arise.

The 2d, 3d, and 4th sections of the act of 1792 were repealed at the next session of Congress by the Act of February 2, 1793. It was these three sections that gave rise to the questions stated in the note to Hayburn's Case. The repealing act provided another mode for taking testimony and deciding upon the validity of claims to the pensions granted by the former law, and by the 3d section it saved all rights to pensions which might be founded "upon any legal adjudication," under the act of 1792, and made it the duty of the Secretary of War, in conjunction with the Attorney General, to take such measures as might be necessary to obtain an adjudication of the Supreme Court "on the validity of such rights, claimed under the act aforesaid, by the determination of certain persons styling themselves commissioners."

It appears from this case that Chief Justice Jay and Justice Cushing acted upon their construction of the act of 1792 immediately after its passage and before it was repealed. And the saving and proviso, in the act of 1793, was manifestly occasioned by the difference of opinion upon that question which existed among the justices, and was introduced for the purpose of having it determined, whether under the act conferring the power upon the circuit courts, the judges of those courts when refusing for the reasons assigned by them to acts as courts, could legally act as commissioners out of court. If the decision of the judges, as commissioners, was a legal adjudication, then the party's right to the pension allowed him was saved; otherwise not.

In pursuance of this act of Congress, the Case of Yale Todd was brought before the Supreme Court in an amicable action and upon a case stated at February Term, 1794.

The case was docketed by consent, the United States being plaintiff and Todd the defendant. The declaration was for one hundred and seventy-two dollars and ninety-one cents, for so much money had and received by the defendant to the use of the United States, to which the defendant pleaded nonassumpsit.

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The case as stated admitted that on 3 May, 1792, the defendant appeared before the Hon. John Jay, William Cushing and Richard Law, then being judges of the Circuit Court held at New Haven for the District of Connecticut, then and there sitting, and claiming to be commissioners under the act of 1792, and exhibited the vouchers and testimony to show his right under that law to be placed on the pension list; and that the judges above named, being judges of the circuit court and then and there sitting at New Haven, in and for the Connecticut District, proceeded, as commissioners designated in the said act of Congress, to take the testimony offered by Todd, which is set out at large in the statement, together with their opinion that Todd ought to be placed on the pension list, and paid at the rate of two-thirds of his former monthly wages, which they understood to have been eight dollars and one-third per month, and the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars for arrears.

The case further admits, that the certificate of their proceedings and opinions, and the testimony they had taken, were afterwards, on 5 May, 1792, transmitted to the Secretary of War, and that by means thereof Todd was placed on the pension list, and had received from the United States one hundred and fifty dollars for arrears, and twenty-two dollars and ninety-one cents claimed for his pension aforesaid, said to be due on 2 September, 1792.

And the parties agreed that if upon this statement the said judges of the circuit court sitting as commissioners, and not as a circuit court, has power and authority by virtue of said act so to order and adjudge of and concerning the premises, that then judgment should be given for the defendant, otherwise for the United States, for one hundred and seventy-two dollars and ninety-one cents, and six cents cost.

The case was argued by Bradford, Attorney General for the United States, and Hillhouse for the defendant, and the judgment of the court was rendered in favor of the United States for the sum above mentioned.

Chief Justice Jay and Justices Cushing Wilson, Blair, and Paterson were present at the decision. No opinion was filed stating the grounds of the decision. Nor is any dissent from the judgment entered on the record. It would seem, therefore, to have been unanimous, and that Chief Justice Jay and Justice Cushing became satisfied on further reflection that the power given in the act of 1792 to the circuit court as a court could not be construed to give it to the judges out of court as commissioners. It must be admitted that the justice of the claims and the meritorious character of the claimants would appear to have exercised some influence on their judgments in the first instance, and to have led them to give a construction to the law which its language would hardly justify upon the most liberal rules of interpretation.

The result of the opinions expressed by the judges of the Supreme Court of that day in the note to Hayburn's Case and in the case of United States v. Todd, is this:

1. That the power proposed to be conferred on the circuit courts of the United States by the act of 1792 was not judicial power within the meaning of the Constitution, and was therefore unconstitutional, and could not lawfully be exercised by the courts.

2. That as the act of Congress intended to confer the power on the courts as a judicial function, it could not be construed as an authority to the judges composing the court to exercise the power out of court in the character of commissioners.

3. That money paid under a certificate from persons not authorized by law to give it might be recovered back by the United States.

The Case of Todd was docketed by consent in the Supreme Court, and the Court appears to have been of opinion that the Act of Congress of 1793, directing the Secretary of War and Attorney General to take their opinion upon the question, gave them original jurisdiction. In the early days of the government, the right of Congress to give original jurisdiction to the Supreme Court in cases not enumerated in the Constitution was maintained by many jurists, and seems to have been entertained by the learned judges who decided Todd's Case. But discussion and more mature examination has settled the question otherwise, and it has long been the established doctrine, and we believe now assented to by all who have examined the subject, that the original jurisdiction of this Court is confined to the cases specified in the Constitution, and that Congress cannot enlarge it. In all other cases, its power must be appellate.

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