United States v. Woolsey
APPEAL from the district court of the United States for the northern district of New York.
The district attorney of the United States for the northern district, filed in the district court of the northern district, an information on behalf of the United States, for the purpose of foreclosing a mortgage executed by Melancthon T. Woolsey to the United States, in July, 1825, as a security for the payment of a dabt due by him to the United States, in one year after its date. The mortgage comprehended land in the county of Jefferson, and in the county of St. Lawrence, New York; and it was recorded in Jefferson county, on the 26th day of November, 1830, and in the county of St. Lawrence, on the 10th of June, 1831.
The Bank of Utica had obtained a judgment against Melancthon T. Woolsey, in the supreme court of New York, on the 17th of October, 1816, for one thousand six hundred dollars, which judgment was docketed on the 24th of November, 1817. No execution was issued on this judgment until it was revived by a scire facias, on the 9th July, 1828. A fieri facias was then issued on the judgment, and the lands mortgage to the United States were sold to satisfy the debt, and were purchased by the Bank of Utica; to whom they were conveyed by the sheriff on the 3d May, 1830. The lands in St. Lawrence county were sold by the sheriff, January 30, 1829, and conveyed to the Bank of Utica, on the 15th May, 1830, having been purchased by the bank.
By the law of New York, the judgments in favour of the Bank of Utica, ceased to be a lien on the lands of Woolsey, after ten years, against bona fide purchasers and subsequent incumbrances; and the district attorney, on behalf of the United States, claimed the operation of the mortgage to the United States, so as to exclude the claim of the bank, under the judgment upon which the land was sold, and purchased by the bank to satisfy their debt. No money was paid by the bank, at the time of the purchase, except the expenses attending the proceedings against the land; but the bank claimed to hold the land as a bona fide purchaser, the property having been bought to satisfy the debt due on the judgment, and without notice of the mortgage to the United States; it not having been put on record until after the proceedings under the judgment.
The district court gave a decree in favour of the defendants, and the plaintiff appealed to this Court.
The questions arising on this case were argued at large, in printed arguments, by Mr. Butler, the attorney general, for the United States; and by Mr. Beardsley, for the defendants.
The judgment of the district court was affirmed, by a divided Court; and no opinion was given on any of the questions raised and argued in the cause; except upon a question of jurisdiction. Mr. Justice Thompson did not sit in the cause, being connected with one of the parties to it.
The Court intimated a doubt of their jurisdiction in the case, as the district attorney had instituted the suit in his own name.
Upon this question Mr. Butler, the attorney general, said:
That the bill represents a case, in which the United States are exclusively the parties complainants; and the appeal is taken by the district attorney, as prosecuting for the United States. The United States are the only parties, and the district attorney has no interest in the cause. The Court will not look, particularly, at forms, when the substance of the case is manifestly within its jurisdiction.
The judiciary act gives jurisdiction to the courts of the United States, in all cases in which the United States are parties. It is then submitted, that as the interest in the suit is entirely in the United States, the Court will consider the case as if brought in the name of the United States.
The rules of practice in the courts of chancery, in England, are the rules established for the government of suits in chancery in the courts of the United States. Where those rules are silent, the practice of the state courts is resorted to. In the courts of New York, it is the practice to file bills in the name of the attorney general, in cases in which the state of New York is interested. In one instance, in the circuit court of the southern district of New York, this practice was adopted. Cited, 33 Rule of the Practice of the Circuit Courts in proceedings in Chancery. Newland's Practice, 55.
It is admitted that no officer of the United States can be sued as such; nor can he, without the authority of an act of congress, institute a suit. But this does not apply in admiralty cases, or in cases in equity; where the United States, being interested, the law officer of the United States often interposes.
In the case of Brown v. Strode, 5 Cranch, 303; 2 Cond. Rep. 265; it was held, that the courts of the United States have jurisdiction in a case, in which citizens of the United States are but nominal plaintiffs, for the use of an alien. On the authority of this case, and of the practice of the courts of the state of New York, the jurisdiction of the Court is claimed. The district attorney is but a nominal party.
Mr. Beardsley, for the defendants, said no wish was entertained to prevent the Court taking jurisdiction of the case.
Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the Court.