Ex parte Atocha

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 439

Ex parte Atocha

PETITION and motion for mandamus: the case being thus:

By the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, made on the 2d of February, 1848, between the United States and Mexico, the United States exonerated Mexico from all demands of their citizens, which had previously arisen, and had not been decided against that government, and engaged to satisfy them to an amount not exceeding $3,250,000. They also stipulated for the establishment of a board of commissioners to ascertain the validity and amount of the claims, and provided that its awards should be final. [1]

In execution of this stipulation Congress, on the 3d of March, 1849, passed an act creating a board of commissioners to examine the claims, and provided for the payment of its awards, or a proportional part thereof, from the amount designated in the treaty. The act required the board to terminate its business within two years from the day of its organization. [2]

To this board Alexander J. Atocha, a naturalized citizen of the United States, presented a claim against the government of Mexico for losses sustained by reason of his expulsion from that country in 1845. In the prosecution of his claim evidence was taken and laid before the board, but whether it was acted upon, and what proceedings were subsequently taken, did not appear by the record. For aught that appeared the claim might not have been prosecuted to a final determination; it might have fallen from the expiration of the board, or it might have been rejected on its merits. It was, however, immaterial, so far as the present inquiry was concerned, what had been its fate before the board. If rejected, the United States were the only party to insist upon the finality of the determination. Mexico was released from the claim, and it did not concern her what consideration the United States might choose to give to it, so long as other claimants against her were not in consequence denied payment of their demands, and there was no pretence that such was the case. On the contrary, a balance remained of the amount designated in the treaty after the satisfaction of the awards made. And on the 14th of February, 1865, Congress passed a special act for the relief of Atocha, and by it directed the Court of Claims to examine into his claim, and provided that if the court was of opinion that the claim was a just one against Mexico when the treaty of 1848 was ratified, and was embraced by that treaty, it should 'fix and determine' its amount, and declared that the loss or damage sustained by him, thus adjudicated and determined, should be paid out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, subject only to the condition that the amount did not exceed the unapplied balance of the sum designated in the treaty. [3]

The claim was accordingly brought, in pursuance of the act, before the Court of Claims for examination and determination. To aid in its examination Congress passed, on the 5th of April, 1870, an amendatory act authorizing Atocha, in the prosecution of his claim, and the government in defending against it, to use such portions of the evidence taken in pursuance of the rules and regulations of the commission established under the treaty as consisted of the testimony of persons since deceased, and declared that the court should give to this evidence, so far as its subject-matter was competent, such weight as in the judgment of the court, under all the circumstances, it ought to have. [4]

On the 26th of May, 1873, the Court of Claims rendered its decision. Reciting that having examined into the claim, in pursuance of the act of Congress, it announced that it was of opinion that the claim was a just one against Mexico when the treaty of 1848 was ratified, and was embraced by that treaty, and 'fixed and determined' the amount of the loss and damage sustained by Atocha by reason of his expulsion from that country at the sum of $207,852.60, and declared that this sum would be satisfied and discharged by the payment by the United States to Eliza J. Atocha, who is the administratrix of the estate of the original claimant, of the balance remaining unapplied of the sum designated in the treaty, which was a few hundred dollars less than the amount awarded.

From this decision the Attorney-General applied for an appeal on behalf of the United States. The application was denied, the Court of Claims being of opinion that no appeal was by law allowed in the case. On motion of the Attorney-General an alternative writ of mandamus was directed to the judges of that court to allow the appeal. In their return the judges referred to the special act under which the Court of Claims heard the case, and placed their refusal on the ground, substantially, that the court acted not under any general grant of jurisdiction, but under the limited authority prescribed by that act; that it was the intention of Congress that the court should proceed not as a court trying an action against the United States, but as a commission similar to that provided by the treaty; that no claim against the United States was submitted to its adjudication; that in the absence of any provision in the special act for an appeal none would lie unless some other provision of law authorized it, and that the provisions contained in the general acts of March 3d, 1863, and June 25th, 1868, in relation to appeals from judgments of the Court of Claims, did not apply, as the first act only gave an appeal from judgments on claims against the United States, and the second act from judgments adverse to the United States.

Upon this return, as upon a demurrer to its sufficiency, the Attorney-General asked for a peremptory mandamus.

Mr. G. H. Williams, Attorney-General, and Mr. J. Goforth, Assistant Attorney-General, in favor of the mandamus; Messrs. J. J. Weed, W. P. Clarke, R. M. Corwine, and Edward Janin, contra.

Mr. Justice FIELD, after stating the facts of the case, delivered the opinion of the court, as follows:


^1  9 Statutes at Large, 933, Arts. XIV and XV of the Treaty.

^2  Ibid. 394.

^3  13 Stat. at Large, 595.

^4  16 Stat. at Large, 633.

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).