LEVY COURT V. CORONER, 69 U. S. 501 (1864)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Levy Court v. Coroner, 69 U.S. 2 Wall. 501 501 (1864)

Levy Court v. Coroner

69 U.S. (2 Wall.) 501




1. The Levy Court of Washington County, in the District of Columbia, if not a corporation in the full sense of the term, is a quasi-corporation; and can sue and be sued in regard to any matter in which, by law, it has rights to be enforced or is under obligations which it refuses to fulfill.

2. The fees allowed by the eighth section of the Act of Congress of July 8, 1838, to the coroners of the Counties of Washington and Alexandria, and to jurors and witnesses who may be lawfully summoned by them to any inquest, are payable by the levy court of the county, not by the federal government.

3. Jurors and witnesses summoned in form by the coroner's summons, regularly served, are so far "lawfully summoned" under the eighth section of the Act of July 8, 1838, just named, that they may be allowed their fees, though the case of death in which they were summoned was strictly not one for a coroner's view, and though the coroner himself would be entitled to none. Fees advanced by the coroner to jurors and witnesses in such a cause may be properly reimbursed to him, and consistently with a refusal to pay him those claimed as his own.

The coroner of the County of Washington, D.C., brought assumpsit in the Circuit Court of the District against what is called the "Levy Court" of Washington, for his fees, fees for "viewing the body," and fees which he had advanced to jurors and witnesses at inquests called by him for that purpose.

Three questions arose:

1. A preliminary one, namely whether the "Levy Court" was a body capable of being sued at all?

2. If it was, whether it was the Levy Court or the federal government which was bound to pay the fees of coroners and their inquests &c.

3. If it was the Levy Court which was bound to pay them, whether the coroner could recover fees advanced to jurors and witnesses on occasions where the death, though sudden, had not occurred from other than natural causes -- cases, for example, where the death came from apoplexy, fits, excessive and habitual intemperance, and other cases which the coroner considered had occurred from "misadventure," but which

Page 69 U. S. 502

might not have fallen within that term as interpreted by the law.

AS RESPECTED THE FIRST QUESTION -- the preliminary one, of whether the Levy Court was a body capable of being sued -- it appeared that this body derived its powers from a statute of Maryland, passed A.D. 1794, entitled "An act for the establishment and regulation of the Levy Courts in the several counties of this state." This authorized them to adjust the expenses of the county, and to impose an assessment for their payment, and to appoint a collector, who shall give bond to the state. Suits were directed to be brought against the collector, and judgments entered in the name of the state. By other statutes they are charged with the expenses of the county relating to roads, bridges, the poor and poor houses, the orphans' court, the jail &c., and invested with power to levy such expenses by taxes. One of these statutes calls them Commissioners of the County, and some acts of Congress speak of them in the same terms.

AS RESPECTED THE SECOND QUESTION -- that is to say, whether the fees of the coroner, his inquests and witnesses, were payable by the federal government, or by the Levy Court itself -- it is necessary to state the history of the legislation under which the claim was made.

Prior to the year 1838, there was no compensation allowed in the District by law to jurors and witnesses for attending inquests on the coroner's summons. They were compelled to attend by due process for the public good. The coroner himself, however, by an old statute of Maryland, passed A.D. 1779, but in force in the District, had a fixed fee -- two hundred and fifty pounds of tobacco -- for each inquest, without regard to the time which he might be required to give to it or the trouble which it cost. This fee the statute made payable, in the first place, out of the estate of the decedent, and in the absence of such estate, by the Levy Court.

On the 7th of July, 1838, Congress passed an act [Footnote 1] the

Page 69 U. S. 503

main purpose of which was to create a criminal court for Washington County and transfer to it from the circuit court the jurisdiction of criminal causes. This circuit court had been in existence for many years, [Footnote 2] and from the date of its establishment the marshal of the District and also jurors and witnesses had been paid from the Treasury of the United States.

The third section of the new act -- the act, to-wit, of 1838 -- provides that the district attorney, marshal, and clerk of the circuit court shall attend the criminal court and perform the same duties in relation to criminal causes which had been required of them in the circuit court, and shall receive the same compensation therefor. Like provision is made for witnesses and jurors.

Then came an eighth section in these words:

"There shall hereafter be allowed and paid to the coroners of the Counties of Washington and Alexandria in said District, and to the jurors and witnesses who may be lawfully summoned by them in any inquest, the same fees and compensation as are now paid to the marshal of said District, and the jurors and witnesses attending said circuit court in said county for similar services."

These fees were construed by the parties concerned to be such as the marshal received for summoning, swearing, and impaneling jurors, swearing witnesses, and returning inquisitions. But the statute did not say who was to pay either the fees given by the third section to the district attorney, marshal, and clerk of the circuit court or those given by the eighth section to the coroner, his jurors and witnesses; the same with the former.

THE THIRD QUESTION depended upon the expression of this same section that these fees were to be paid to jurors and witnesses who might be "lawfully summoned" by coroners to "any" inquest and on the fact whether or not an inquest and witnesses who received a summons in form and on its face wholly regular were "lawfully summoned" to any inquest which the law, rightly interpreted, would not consider a proper case for the coroner's jurisdiction.

Page 69 U. S. 504

The court below thought, on the first point, that the Levy Court was a body which could properly be sued; on the second, that it, and not the federal government, was the party to pay the coroner's fees. On the third -- while it thought that in no case of death from apoplexy, fits, or excessive and habitual intemperance, or of sudden death proceeding from natural causes and the visitation of God, it was proper to hold an inquest, and accordingly disallowed the coroner's claim in such cases to fees for himself -- it yet allowed him reimbursement of fees advanced by him to inquests and witnesses.

Judgment having been given accordingly, the correctness of the views taken below was now the matter in error here.

Page 69 U. S. 507

MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

1. The first question which arises in this case is whether the Levy Court of Washington County has a legal capacity to be sued in a court of justice.

The Levy Court is the body charged with the administration of the ministerial and financial duties of Washington County. It is charged with the duty of laying out and repairing roads, building bridges, and keeping them in good order, providing poor houses, and the general care of the poor, and with laying and collecting the taxes which are necessary to enable it to discharge these and other duties, and to pay the other expenses of the county. It has the capacity to make contracts in reference to any of these matters and to raise money to meet these contracts. It has perpetual succession. Its functions are those which, in the several states, are performed by "county commissioners," "overseers of the poor," "county supervisors," and similar bodies with other designations. Nearly all the functions of these various bodies or of any of them reside in the Levy Court of Washington. It is for all financial and ministerial

Page 69 U. S. 508

purposes the County of Washington. If not a corporation in the full sense of the term, it is a quasi-corporation, and can sue and be sued in regard to any matter in which, by law, it has rights to be enforced or is under obligations which it refuses to fulfill. This principle, a necessary one in the enlarged sphere of usefulness which such bodies are made to perform in modern times, is well supported by adjudged cases. [Footnote 3]

2. We are next called upon to determine whether the fees of the Coroner of Washington County and of the jurors and witnesses who attend at his summons upon the inquests held in the county and which cannot be made out of the estate of the decedent are by law payable by the Treasury of the United States or by the levy court of said county.

It is contended by counsel for plaintiff in error that these fees are payable out of the public treasury. The main reason on which the claim is founded is that the fees mentioned in the third section are confessedly paid from that source. Hence it is argued that all the fees embraced in the same act are by necessary intendment payable from the same source unless a contrary intention is expressed. And in support of this view counsel says:

"No one ever doubted that under this section [the third] the fees of jurors and witnesses in the criminal court were to be paid by the United States, although it is not so expressed."

It may be asked if the act does not express that these fees are to be paid out of the public treasury, upon what principle is it so universally conceded that they are to be thus paid? The answer is because they were paid by the United States before the passage of that law, and while the lawmakers found it necessary to provide that officers, witnesses, and jurors rendering services in a new court of the same kind which they had formerly rendered in the circuit court should receive the same compensation, they took it for

Page 69 U. S. 509

granted that the compensation would come from the same quarter as before.

An extension of this reasoning to the fees provided in the eighth section, where Congress desires to increase the compensation of the coroner, leads us to the conclusion that these fees were also to be paid from the same source they were formerly -- namely the Levy Court. It seems to us that the inference from the fact that Congress made no mention of the source of payment for these fees is that they did not intend to make any change in the rule on that subject. In regard to the fees payable to the coroner for his own services, there appears to be no room for doubt. And although the fees allowed to witnesses and jurors owe their existence to this act, and were therefore never before payable, either by the levy court or by the United States Treasury, we cannot doubt that they must follow in that respect the fees of the coroner. They relate to the same kind of service, rendered in the same cases, and are provided for in the same sentence of the act which increases his fees. It would require positive language in the act to enable us to hold that while the coroner's fees for an inquest are payable by the levy court of the county, those of the jurors and witnesses summoned to serve on the same occasion are to be paid by the Treasury of the United States. [Footnote 4]

We are therefore of opinion that the fees allowed by the eighth section of the act of 1838 which cannot be made out of the estate of the deceased should be paid by the Levy Court of Washington County.

3. Certain fees paid by the coroner to witnesses and jurors were allowed by the court in cases where the fees for his own services were disallowed on the ground that the inquests were held in cases not provided for by law.

It is alleged for error that the sums paid by him to witnesses and jurors in these cases were allowed him.

The eighth section of the act, already quoted, says that

Page 69 U. S. 510

these fees shall be allowed "to witnesses and jurors who may be lawfully summoned." It would be a very forced construction of this provision, as well as unjust, to hold that this lawfulness depends upon any other fact than the regular service of the summons by a lawful officer. The jurors and witnesses are compelled, when thus summoned, to obey the writ. They have no right to consider whether the summons issued on a proper state of facts as they might appear to the coroner, nor the means of deciding it if they had the right. When witnesses and jurors thus summoned actually attend, they are entitled to their fees. It can make no difference in the justice or legality of the claims whether they are presented by the witnesses and jurors to the levy court or whether they are first paid by the coroner and presented by him. He loses enough by his mistake in judgment when he is refused compensation for his own services, without being compelled to lose what he has advanced for the public service.

We discover no error in the record, and the judgment of the circuit court is therefore


[Footnote 1]

5 Stat. at Large 306.

[Footnote 2]

It was established by act of February 27, 1801; 2 Stat. at Large 103.

[Footnote 3]

Inhabitants v. Wood, 13 Mass. 192; Bradley v. Case, 3 Scammon 608; Overseers of Pittsburg v. Overseers of Plattsburg, 18 Johnson 407; Overseers v. Birdsale, 1 Cowen 260; Jansen v. Ostrander, ibid., 670; Commonwealth v. Green, 4 Wharton 598.

[Footnote 4]

See Attorney General Cushing's opinion, 6 Opinions of Attorneys General 561.

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