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

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