Ex parte Atocha/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 439

Ex parte Atocha

The question for determination is, whether, under the acts of Congress investing the Court of Claims with general jurisdiction to hear and determine claims, an appeal lies from its decision in this case. If an appeal is authorized it must be by the provisions of the act of March 3d, 1863, amending the act establishing the Court of Claims, or of the act of June 25th, 1868, providing for appeals from its judgments.

The original act of February 24th, 1855, establishing the court, gave it jurisdiction to hear and determine all claims founded upon any law of Congress, or upon any regulation of an executive department, or upon any contract, express or implied, with the government of the United States, which might be suggested to it by petition, and all claims which might be referred to the court by either house of Congress; but it did not authorize any appeal from the decisions of the court. It required the court to report to Congress the cases upon which it had finally acted, and the material facts established by the evidence in each, with its opinion and the reasons upon which the opinion was founded. It was not until the passage of the act of March 3d, 1863, that an appeal from its decisions was allowed. That act materially amended the original act, added two more judges, gave the court jurisdiction over set-offs and counter-claims, and authorized an appeal to the Supreme Court in all cases where the amount in controvery exceeded $3000, and without reference to the amount, where the case involved a constitutional question, or the judgment or decree affected a class of cases, or furnished a precedent for the future action of an executive department. But the act at the same time declared that the jurisdiction of the court should not extend to or include any claim against the government, not pending in the court on the 1st of December, 1862, growing out of or dependent on any treaty stipulation entered into with foreign nations or the Indian tribes. All the cases of which the court could subsequently take cognizance, by either the original or amendatory act, were cases arising out of contracts or transactions between the government or its officers and claimants; and in their decision the court was to be governed by those established rules of evidence which determine controversies between litigants in the ordinary tribunals of the country. Those acts have since then applied only to claims made directly against the United States, and for the payment of which they were primarily liable, if liable at all, and not to claims against other governments, the payment of which the United States had assumed or might assume by treaty.

The act of June 25th, 1868, whilst allowing appeals on behalf of the United States from all final judgments of the Court of Claims adverse to the United States, did not change the character of the claims of which that court could previously take cognizance. Claims under treaty stipulations are not brought within it, and when jurisdiction over such claims is conferred by special act, the authority of that court to hear and determine them, and of this court to review its action, is limited and controlled by the provisions of that act.

In the case of Meade v. United States, the special act of Congress was passed to remove the restriction of the ninth section of the act of 1863, and his claim was referred to the Court of Claims 'for adjudication thereof, pursuant to authority conferred upon said court by any existing law to examine and decide claims against the United States, referred to it by Congress.' [5] His claim was thus placed under the jurisdiction of the court equally as though the ninth section were not in existence.

In the present case, no such general reference was made of the claim of Atocha, nor was any such extended authority over it conferred. The court was directed to make a specific examination into the justice of the claim against Mexico, and whether it was embraced within the treaty; and if the court was of opinion that the claim was a just one and was embraced within the treaty, it was required 'to fix and determine' its amount, and when so determined, the act declares that the amount shall be paid. The matter was referred to the court to ascertain a particular fact to guide the government in the execution of its treaty stipulations. The court has acted upon the matter, and as no mode is provided for a review of its action, it must be taken and regarded as final.

Our judgment is, that the return of the judges of the Court of Claims to the alternative writ is sufficient, and a peremptory mandamus is



^5  14 Stat. at Large, 611.

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).