United States v. Cumming/Opinion of the Court
It is evident that congress intended to open the doors of the court of claims to the plaintiffs, so far as to permit them to sue the government, unembarrassed by any defense of the statute of limitations, and to obtain an adjudication, based upon 'the law and facts,' as to the liability of the United States for the wrongs of which complaint is made. In other words, the jurisdiction of the court of claims was so enlarged as to embrace this particular demand, and to authorize such judgment as, under all the evidence, would be consistent with law. Here, however, we are met with the suggestion that there is a general principle applicable, as this court said, in Gibbons v. U.S., 8 Wall. 269, 275, to all governments, which 'forbids, on a policy imposed by necessity, that they should hold themselves liable for unauthorized wrongs inflicted by their officers on the citizen, though occurring while engaged in the discharge of official duties.' Did congress intend to abrogate this principle so far as the demands of the present plaintiffs are concerned? Did it invest the court of claims with jurisdiction to render a judgment against the United States upon its appearing that the revenue officers transcended the authority conferred upon them by law, or had exercised their authority in such manner as made them personally liable in damages to the plaintiffs? There would be some ground for an affirmative answer to these questions if the statute had not required the court to pass upon both the law and the facts 'as to the liability of the United States.' If the facts disclosed a case of unauthorized wrongs done to the plaintiffs by the revenue officers of the United States, the question, by the very terms of the act, would still remain whether the United States were liable, in law, for such damages as the plaintiffs had sustained. There would seem to be no escape from the conclusion that congress intended that the liability of the government should be determined by the settled principles of law. The only right waived by the government was a defense based upon the statute of limitations. Erwin v. U.S., 97 U.S. 392; Tillson v. U.S., 100 U.S. 43; McClure v. U.S., 116 U.S. 145, 6 Sup. Ct. Rep. 321. It is said that the act, professedly for the relief of the plaintiffs, would be unavailing, unless it is so constructed as to relieve them from the operation of the rule laid down in Gibbons v. U.S. A satisfactory answer to this suggestion is that if congress intended to do more than give the plaintiffs an opportunity, in an action for damages brought in the court of claims, to test the question as to the liability of the United States, upon the law and facts, for the alleged wrongs of their officers, that intention would have been expressed in language not to be misunderstood. It is as if the plaintiffs asserted before congress the liability, in law, of the government for the damages they sustained, and congress permitted them to invoke the jurisdiction of the court of claims in order that there might be a judicial determination of the question by that tribunal, with the right of appeal 'as in ordinary cases against the United States in said court.' According to this construction of the act, the plaintiffs were not entitled to judgment against the United States in any sum; for, if Collector Bailey and other revenue officers did nothing more than the law authorized them to do, neither they nor the government would be liable in damages, while, if they acted illegally, they would be personally liable in damages, not the government. The judgment is reversed, with directions to render judgment in favor of the United States.
MILLER and FIELD, JJ., dissented.