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United States v. Clark (96 U.S. 37)/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
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.

This is an appeal from the Court of Claims, and very few cases involving no larger sum of money have given us more trouble. It was before us at the last term, and is reported. 94 U.S. 73. Upon an examination of the record, after the case had been submitted to us, it was discovered that on an essential fact in issue the Court of Claims had made no finding, but had sent us the evidence on that point. The judgment was therefore reversed, on the ground that there was no sufficient finding of the facts on which to render a judgment, and the cause was remitted to that court for further proceedings.

The Court of Claims has now found, with sufficient distinctness, the existence of the fact required; but it still sends to us, with the record, the evidence on which it so found. It is this which produces the embarrassment, as we shall presently see.

The suit is brought by Clark, under the act of May 9, 1866 (14 Stat. 44, Rev. Stat., sects. 1059, 1062), which authorizes the Court of Claims to hear and determine the claim of any disbursing officer for relief from responsibility on account of capture or other loss of funds while in the line of his duty, and for which such officer was and is held responsible; and, in case the loss has been found to be without fault or negligence on the part of such officer, to make a decree setting forth the amount thereof, which shall be allowed as a credit by the accounting officers of the treasury in the settlement of his accounts.

The Court of Claims finds that the claimant lost by robbery, while in the line of his duty as assistant-paymaster in the army, at Franklin, Texas, on the sixth day of April, 1865, a package of government funds; that the package was in his official safe at his quarters, and the loss was without fault or neglect on his part. The fifth finding of the court, and the one which was made to supply the defect found in the case when it was here before, is as follows: 'The package of government funds which the claimant lost by robbery, as above stated, contained the sum of $15,979.87.'

If this were all, there would be no difficulty in holding that these findings sufficiently established all that is necessary to support the decree in favor of the claimant for a credit of that sum in his account with the government. But the Court of Claims has mingled with, and made a part of its finding of facts, and sent here as part of the record, the proceedings of a court-martial which tried and convicted Thomas Boylan and Louis Morales of committing the robbery by which the money was lost. It sufficiently appears that the only evidence on which the Court of Claims made its fifth finding, namely, the amount of the money which was in the government package so lost, was the record of the court-martial, and that claimant there testified to the amount of the loss. Also, that he was of good character, personally and officially; had always kept regular and exact accounts of the funds in his official custody; made due returns in regard to them, and properly accounted therefor. And that he immediately reported to his superior officer that the funds in that safe were $15,979.87, which was the amount of the loss appearing in his official reports, and charged against him as a deficiency on the final revision and settlement of his accounts by the accounting officers of the treasury.

It is clear that upon this testimony alone the Court of Claims fixed the sum lost by claimant. We are asked by the counsel for the government to hold that it is not competent evidence to establish that fact.

It is manifest that, before we can do this, we must also hold that where that court has found in due form, and presented to us one of those ultimate facts which it is required to find, and which is necessary to its judgment, and has at the same time presented as part of its finding all the evidence on which that fact was found, we can look at both findings to see whether that evidence was competent proof of that fact. This is precisely what was done in Moore v. United States, 91 U.S. 270.

Counsel for the United States insist that a party in the Court of Claims has a right to bring before this court for review any and every ruling of the Court of Claims upon the admission or the rejection of evidence, and also its weight and effect upon the case. The question thus presented is one of much perplexity, and involves the right to a bill of exceptions in a court which sits without a jury, where the evidence is all in writing, and whose judgments we have, by our rules, sought to make final as to all the facts in the case.

We do not propose here to enter this field of inquiry further than this case requires. And we think it does require us not to weigh the evidence, nor to decide whether the court below was bound to note the exception prayed by counsel, or even to include in their findings the matters of evidence we have above stated. But we are of opinion that when that court has presented, as part of their findings, what they show to be all the testimony on which they base one of the essential, ultimate facts, which they have also found, and on which their judgment rests, we must, if that testimony is not competent evidence of that fact, reverse the judgment for that reason. For here is, in the very findings of the court, made to support its judgment, the evidence that in law that judgment is wrong. And this not on the weight or balance of testimony, nor on any partial view of whether a particular piece of testimony is admissible, but whether, upon the whole of the testimony as presented by the court itself, there is any evidence to support its verdict; that is, its finding of the ultimate fact in question.

Entering upon the inquiry, whether there is here any evidence on which the court could have found the amount of the loss by the robbery, it seems too plain for argument that the record of the court-martial is wholly incompetent.

1. Clark was no party to that proceeding, and is not, therefore, bound by its findings; and, by a well-known rule, there is no mutuality, and, therefore, it cannot bind the United States. 2. The amount of the robbery was in no way an essential issue in the trial of the robbers. 3. And it may well be doubted whether a criminal proceeding in a military court can be used to establish any collateral fact in a civil proceeding in another court.

Nor can the evidence of a witness in that case be competent to establish a fact in another case, without some reason, such as his death or insanity since it was given. We will recur to this point presently.

Was the good character of the claimant, the regularity of his accounts, and the prompt report of the loss and its amount, competent evidence to establish that amount? The only thing in all this which could have any tendency to prove the sum lost is the report of its loss. This is but the testimony of the party claimant, and testimony not under oath. If he is incompetent as a witness, this less direct mode of testifying must also be excluded. If he is competent, and had been introduced on the stand, this fact might be used as corroborative evidence. But while he is alive and competent, it must be excluded as primary or independent evidence; because there is better evidence in the sworn statement of the party himself, produced on the stand and subject to cross-examination.

It is obvious, however, that the court or the counsel were laboring under the conviction that claimant was not a competent witness, and were struggling to find other evidence of a fact which was known to him alone. In this we think they were mistaken, and that for the purpose of proving the contents of the stolen package, and for that purpose alone, he was competent.

We are of opinion that, by the rules of evidence derived from the common law, as it is understood in the United States, whenever it becomes important to ascertain the contents of a box, trunk, or package which has been lost or destroyed, under circumstances that make some one liable in a court of justice for the loss, and the loss and the liability are established by other testimony, the owner or party interested in the loss, though he may be a party to the suit, is a competent witness to prove the contents so lost or destroyed. I Greenl. Evid. §§ 348-350, and notes.

This is one of those exceptions to the rigorous rule of the common law excluding parties and persons having an interest in the result of the suit from becoming witnesses in their own behalf, which has been engrafted upon that system. It is founded in the necessity of permitting the only party who knows the matter to be proved to testify, in order to prevent an absolute failure of justice, where his right to relief has been established by other evidence. We are aware that there is a conflict of authority on this point, but we believe the preponderance is in favor of the proposition we have stated; and looking at it as a matter of principle, in the light of the progress of legislation and judicial decision, in the direction of more liberal rules of evidence, we have no hesitation in adopting it, in the absence of legislation by Congress on the subject.

But there is legislation by Congress, and it is doubtless to be attributed to this that Mr. Clark was not called to prove the contents of the lost package. Sect. 858 of the Revised Statutes, originally enacted July 2, 1864, declares that 'in the courts of the United States no witness shall be excluded in any action on account of color, or in any civil action because he is a party to or interested in the issue tried.' This was a complete abolition of the rule of exclusion under the common law in all the courts of the United States, and under it the claimant would have been competent to prove not only the contents of a lost package, but every other fact necessary to establish his claim or title to the relief sought by the suit. Four years later, however, Congress became dissatisfied with this departure from the old rule of evidence as it applied to suits in the Court of Claims, and by the act of June 25, 1868 (Rev. Stat., sect. 1079), intended to restore it. It is there enacted that 'no claimant, nor any person from or through whom any such claimant derives his title, claim, or right against the United States, nor any person interested in any such title, claim, or right, shall be a competent witness in the Court of Claims in supporting the same; and no testimony given by such claimant or person shall be used, except as provided in the next section.' The next section provides for the examination of such parties at the instance of the government counsel.

It can hardly be supposed that Congress intended to do more in this last statute than to restore the common-law rule of exclusion as it stood before the passage of the act of 1864. There is nothing in the language of the act of 1868, nor in the purpose to be subserved, which required more; and in this respect the later act was limited to the Court of Claims, leaving the more progressive rule of 1864 to its full operation in all other courts. The peculiar form of expression of the act of 1868, so far from militating against this view, rather tends to confirm it. The parties are excluded from being witnesses in support of the title, claim, or right asserted in the suit, and no testimony given by them,-that is, no testimony given elsewhere on those points,-shall be used. But it is not inconsistent with this view, that, if the title or right of the claimant to relief is established by other evidence, he may be competent to prove, as under the common-law rule, the contents of the package in regard to which his right, title, and claim to relief has already been established. We are of opinion, therefore, that for this purpose the claimant was a competent witness, and that his testimony was the best to be had, since the court finds that he kept no clerk or assistant who might know the necessary facts.

It follows, that, since there was no competent evidence before the Court of Claims, as shown by their own finding, of the contents or amount of the lost package, their finding on that subject was erroneous, and the case must be returned for a new trial. But as all the other facts necessary to a judgment have been found, and are without error in the finding, the new trial or hearing will be limited to the question of the contents of the lost package.

As the case has now been twice before us, and as counsel for the United States has insisted on a plea of the Statute of Limitations, we must dispose of that now.

'Every claim against the United States, cognizable in the Court of Claims, shall be for ever barred, unless the petition is filed . . . within six years after the claim first accrues.' Rev. Stat., sect. 1069. The petition of plaintiff in this suit does not, in the just sense of the word, set forth a claim against the United States. It sets up a defence to a claim of the United States against the plaintiff. The Court of Claims finds that plaintiff is now sued in another court by the United States for the sum in controversy here.

The plaintiff asks, and by the very terms of the statute under which the Court of Claims acts can obtain, no judgment for money against the United States, nor fix any liability on the government to pay him any thing. By a very curious provision, the Court of Claims is authorized to establish for him a defence to a claim, which claim the government can only establish judicially in some other court. If that court could entertain jurisdiction of this matter when offered as a defence, it is very clear that the Statute of Limitations would be no bar to such defence there. Why should it be here? We think it is a principle of general application, that so long as a party who has a cause of action delays to enforce it in a legal tribunal, so long will any legal defence to that action be protected from the bar of the lapse of time, provided it is not a cross-demand in the nature of an independent cause of action. But if we are mistaken in this, it is clear that, until the accounting officers of the treasury had refused to recognize the sum lost as a valid credit in the settlement of his accounts, there was no occasion to apply to the Court of Claims; and the statute, if applicable to this class of cases at all, did not begin to run until then. In the language of the statute, the officer is not held responsible for this amount until the accounting officers reject it as a credit, and it is only when he has been or is so held that he is authorized to sue in the Court of Claims to establish his defence.

Judgment reversed, and cause remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.



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).