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Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

96 U.S. 37

The United States  v.  Cyrus C. Clark

Appeal from the Court of Claims

No. 804.  Argued: January 14, 1878. --- Decided: February 25, 1878.


I concur in the reversal of the judgment in this case, because there was no competent evidence before the Court of Claims of the amount of public moneys taken from Clark by this alleged robbery. But I feel obliged to express my dissent from some of the conclusions announced in the opinion of the majority of my brethren.

The proviso to the third section of the Civil Appropriation Act of July 2, 1864, declares, that 'in the courts of the United States there shall be no exclusion of any witness on account of color, nor in civil actions because he is a party to or interested in the issue tried.' 13 Stat. 351. Prior to its passage, the courts of the United States adhered, with great strictness, to the common-law rule that a party to the record cannot be a witness, either for himself or a co-suitor in the cause. Bridges et al. v. Armour et al., 5 How. 91; Stein v. Bowman et al., 13 Pet. 209.

Broad as was its language, that proviso was regarded as applying only to the courts of the United States referred to in the judiciary act. Congress, however, by sect. 3 of the general appropriation act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stat. 451), directed that it should 'be construed to embrace all suits to which the United States shall be a party in the Court of Claims, either as plaintiff or defendant,' thus rendering a party to an action in that court a competent witness against the United States, without reference to his interest in the issue.

That section remained in force but a short while; long enough, however, as we may infer from a subsequent enactment, to convince the legislative department that it was against public policy to allow suitors in the Court of Claims to testify in their own behalf against the government. Hence, by an act providing for appeals from that court, and for other purposes, approved June 25, 1868 (15 id. 75), it was declared,--

'That no plaintiff, claimant, or any person, from or through whom any such plaintiff or claimant derives his alleged title, claim, or right against the United States, or any person interested in any such title, claim, or right, shall be a competent witness in the Court of Claims in supporting any such title, claim, or right, and no testimony given by such plaintiff, claimant, or person shall be used: Provided, that the United States shall, if they see cause, have the right to examine such plaintiff, claimant, or person as a witness, under the regulations and with the privileges provided in sect. 8 of the act of March 3, 1863, entitled 'An Act to amend an act to establish a court for the investigation of claims against the United States, approved Feb. 24, 1855."

The privilege here referred to was that accorded to the government to require the claimant, upon the order of the court, to submit to an examination, under oath or affirmation, as to any and all matters pertaining to his claim, such examination not to become evidence in the cause except at the discretion of the United States. 12 Stat. 766.

The provisions of the acts of July 2, 1864, and June 25, 1868, so far as they relate to the competency of witnesses, were reenacted in the Revised Statutes. Sects. 858, 1079, 1080.

An act, approved May 9, 1866 (14 Stat. 44), confers jurisdiction upon the Court of Claims 'to hear and determine the claim of any paymaster, quartermaster, commissary of subsistence, or other disbursing officer of the United States, . . . for relief from responsibility on account of losses by capture or otherwise, while in the line of his duty, of government funds, . . . and for which such officer was and is held responsible: Provided, that an appeal may be taken to the Supreme Court, as in other cases.'

Sect. 2 provides 'that whenever that court shall have ascertained the facts of any loss to have been without fault or neglect on the part of such officer, it shall make a decree setting forth the amount thereof, upon which the proper accounting officers of the treasury shall allow to such officer the amount so decreed as a credit in the settlement of his accounts.'

Under the authority of this statute Clark instituted this action against the United States, asserting that, in the year 1865, while in the line of his duty as paymaster, in the State of Texas, he had, without fault or neglect on his part, been robbed of government funds in the sum of $15,979.87, and praying that a decree be rendered relieving him from responsibility therefor.

The fact of a loss, without the fault or neglect of Clark, having been shown by other witnesses, this court holds that he is a competent witness, in his own behalf, to prove the extent of such loss. He is thus allowed to establish, by his own testimony, one of the essential facts upon which any decree in his favor must rest; viz., the amount for which he should receive credit in the settlement of his accounts.

In that view I cannot concur. I think it cannot be sustained upon principle or authority. The will of Congress as to the conditions upon which it allows the citizen to sue the government has been expressed in plain and unambiguous language, which leaves no room for construction. It is obviously our duty to execute the statute without reference to our opinion as to its wisdom or policy. If, under the circumstances of particular cases, it seems harsh when construed according to its terms, the remedy is with another department of the government, and not with the judiciary. The act which furnishes the sole authority for the institution of this action describes the demand of a disbursing officer to be relieved from responsibility for government funds which have been lost, as a 'claim' which the Court of Claims may hear and determine. Congress not only expressly provides that no plaintiff or claimant in that court shall be a competent witness in supporting any claim or right he may assert against the United States; but, as if ex industria to prevent all misapprehension, and remove all possible doubt as to its intention, declares that 'no testimony given by such plaintiff, claimant, or person shall be used.' Nevertheless, this court holds that Clark may testify as to the extent of the credit he is entitled to receive, and that his testimony upon that point may be used against the United States. If at the time of framing the act of June 25, 1868, the draughtsman intended to employ such terms as should effectually and in every conceivable contingency exclude the testimony of claimants when offered in their own behalf in the Court of Claims, he could, in my opinion, have used no more appropriate language. It is so simple and clear, that it would seem impossible for the utmost ingenuity to suggest a mode of defeating what appears to have been the evident purpose of Congress. A 'claimant' or a 'plaintiff' in the Court of Claims is incompetent as a witness against the United States. Is not Clark a 'plaintiff,' and does he not in this suit set up a claim or right? If allowed to be a witness to prove the amount of his loss, will he not give testimony in support of a 'right' to be credited therewith? Is not the act explicit and imperative that no 'plaintiff' shall be heard to support his claim or right in that court by his own testimony, and that his testimony shall not be used against the government? It seems to me that these questions must be answered in the affirmative. Under what rule, then, can Clark be a competent witness in his own behalf? How can his testimony be received against the government, without utterly disregarding the plainly expressed will of that department, which has the power to declare the conditions upon which the United States may be sued by the citizen?

With entire respect for the opinion of my brethren, I submit that the construction which the court places upon the act of June 25, 1868, seems to fall very little short of judicial legislation.

It is said that the utmost which can be claimed for the act is that it prescribes the general common-law rule, that a party cannot testify in his own behalf, and that this case comes within one of the recognized exceptions to that rule. In support of that position, we are referred to sects. 348-350 of 1st Greenleaf's Evidence. But neither they nor the authorities cited in the notes prove what is claimed for them. That eminent text-writer says that 'the oath in litem is admitted in two classes of cases: first, when it has been already proved that he party against whom it is offered has been guilty of some fraud or other tortious and unwarrantable act of intermeddling with the complainant's goods, and no other evidence can be had of the amount of damage; and, secondly, where, on general grounds of policy, it is deemed essential to the purposes of justice.' An example of the first class is the case cited in East India Company v. Evans et al., 1 Vern. 306, where a man ran away with a casket of jewels. The injured party was allowed to testify in odium spoliatoris. Another case, of the same class, is Herman v. Drinkwater, 1 Me. 27, where the plaintiff shipped a trunk and two boxes on a brig then in the port of London, of which the defendant was master. The latter undertook to transport them to New York. The plaintiff, desiring to accompany them, engaged passage for himself in the same vessel, and sent on board his clothes and other baggage necessary for his accommodation. The defendant sailed without him, and on the voyage to New York broke open the trunk and rifled it of its contents. The plaintiff, in an action against the master, was held to be a competent witness, in his own behalf, to prove the contents of the trunk. It will not be pretended that the case now before us is within the first class just stated. The United States was not guilty of any fraud or tortious act whereby Clark lost the funds intrusted to him.

Nor can this case, consistently with the authorities, be embraced in the second class, familiar examples of which are actions against innkeepers, stable-keepers, and common carriers. Such actions always proceed upon the theory that the defendant was guilty of some fraud or negligence or breach of trust, whereby the plaintiff lost his property. Upon grounds of public policy the latter was sometimes allowed, at common law, to prove by his own oath certain facts essential to a recovery, no other evidence being attainable. To this head may be referred, says Mr. Greenleaf, the admission of the party robbed, as a witness for himself, in an action against the hundred, upon the Statute of Winton. But that action was authorized upon the ground that the hundred was guilty of some wrong or negligence whereby the plaintiff had received the injury complained of. Nothing of that kind can be predicated of the government in a case like this. No element of wrong or fraud or negligence on its part can exist in any action instituted under the act of May 9, 1866. Paymaster Clark was intrusted with public funds for disbursement, and their loss was not caused by the neglect of any other government officer. By the law then in force, he was responsible for them, although they had been feloniously taken from him. United States v. Prescott et al., 3 How. 578. Congress, in 1866, influenced doubtless by the hardship of special cases, perhaps of this particular case, enabled disbursing officers to obtain a credit for government funds taken from them, without fault or negligence on their part. A subsequent statute, however, declares that no testimony given by a plaintiff in the Court of Claims against the United States shall be used. Whatever exceptions to the common-law rule public policy or necessity has established, the terms of the act of June 25, 1868, exclude all possibility of exceptions to the rule which it prescribes. In the Court of Claims no plaintiff can testify against the United States in support of his claim or right. So reads the statute; and it is, I submit, the duty of this court to obey it, leaving to Congress to make such changes in the rules of evidence as its views of public policy may suggest. It may be unfortunate for Clark if he be denied an opportunity to testify to the amount of his loss; but, as said by Lord Campbell, 'it is the duty of all courts of justice to take care, for the general good of the community, that hard cases do not make bad law.' East India Company v. Paul, 7 Moo. P. C. C. 111.

I dissent also from that portion of the opinion which overrules the plea of limitation interposed by the government.

The act of March 3, 1863 (12 Stat. 765, re-enacted in Rev. Stat., sect. 1069), declares that 'every claim against the United States, cognizable by the Court of Claims, shall be for ever barred, unless the petition setting forth the statement of the claim be filed . . . within six years after the claim first accrues.'

Immediately upon the passage of the act of May 9, 1866, Clark had the right to proceed in that court, but he did not file his petition until April 12, 1873. 'In general, it may be said that it is a rule in courts of equity as well as in courts of law, that the cause of action or suit arises when and as soon as the party has a right to apply to the proper tribunals for relief.' Angell, Lim. 37, c. 6, sect. 42; 2 Story, Eq. Jur.,

This court holds that Clark's suit was not the assertion of a 'claim,' within the meaning of the limitation clause of the act of 1863. From that construction I dissent.

Clark resorted to the Court of Claims under the authority of an act which, as already suggested, entitles the demand for relief under its provisions as a 'claim,' and in his affidavit to the petition he speaks of his demand as a 'claim,' and of himself as a 'claimant.' The Revised Statutes, following that act, designate such a demand as a 'claim,' and give the Court of Claims jurisdiction of 'all claims founded upon any act of Congress.' In every just sense, this claim is so founded.

Clark, in order to obtain relief from responsibility for the funds in question, was required to present to the proper accounting officers a decree of the Court of Claims directing that he should receive credit for the amount taken from him by the alleged robbery. It was not, therefore, a misuse of words for Congress to describe a demand for relief under the act of 1866 as a 'claim.' If a 'claim,' it was clearly barred, unless it did not accrue until the credit which Clark had given himself in his report was rejected at the treasury in 1871; but, unquestionably, his crediting himself with the amount taken from him by the robbery was an unauthorized act. The accounting officers could not, except in pursuance of a decree of the Court of Claims, lawfully admit such a credit; and their failure to promptly disallow it did not give him any additional right, nor deprive the government of any right which it possessed. Neither his nor their action could suspend the running of the Statute of Limitations. His claim, therefore, accrued immediately upon the passage of the act of May 9, 1866. Not having been asserted by suit within six years from that date, it was barred.

I am of opinion that the judgment should be reversed, with directions to dismiss the petition.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).