United States v. Eckford
APPEAL from the Court of Claims, the case being thus:
An act of Congress  of the 3d of March, 1797, § 3, provides that where a suit is instituted against any person indebted to the United States, the court shall, on motion, grant judgment at the return term, unless the defendant shall, in open court, make oath or affirmation that he is equitably entitled to credits which had been, previous to the commencement of the suit, submitted to the consideration of the accounting officers of the treasury and rejected, specifying each particular claim so rejected in the affidavit. The same act provides, § 4, that in such suits no claim for a credit shall be admitted upon trial but such as shall appear to have been submitted to the accounting officers of the treasury for their examination and by them been disallowed, unless it shall appear that the defendant, at the time of trial, is in possession of vouchers, not before in his power to procure, and that he was prevented from exhibiting a claim for such credit at the treasury by absence from the United States, or some unavoidable accident.
With this act in force, the United States sued the executors of Eckford, who had been collector of New York, on his official bond, in the District Court for Southern New York. Among other pleas was that of set-off. The jury sustained the plea, and certified that there was due from the United States to the defendants, $20,545. On this verdict a judgment was entered, 'that the United States take nothing by their bill, and that the defendants go thereof without day; and that the said executors are entitled to be paid the said balance so certified,' &c.
The claim not being paid, the executors brought suit against the United States in the Court of Claims, and offered the record of the Circuit Court in evidence. It was objected to by the counsel of the United States; but the objection was overruled and the record read, and judgment accordingly. The United States appealed; and, divested of its special form below, the question now here was, whether, when the United States sued a person indebted to it, and a set-off to a greater amount than the claim was pleaded and proved, a judgment could be given against the United States for the excess.
By statutes of New York, in case of such pleas, 'if there be found a balance due from the plaintiff in the action to the defendant, judgment shall be rendered to the defendant for the amount.'
Mr. E. P. Norton, for the United States, appellant, relied, as concluding all argument, on De Groot v. United States,  where this court says:
'When the United States is plaintiff in one of the Federal courts, and the defendant has pleaded a set-off, which the acts of Congress have authorized him to rely on, no judgment can be rendered against the government, although it may be judicially ascertained tha on striking a balance of just demands the government is indebted to the defendant in an ascertained amount.'
Reeside v. Walker,  was cited to a similar effect.
Mr. S. E. Lyon, contra, argued that the ruling below was supported by United States v. Wilkins,  where Story, J., for the court, in construing the act under which the set-off was offered and proved, says:
^1 1 Stat. at Large, 515.
^2 5 Wallace, 431.
^3 11 Howard, 290.
^4 6 Wheaton, 135.