Belknap v. United States
150 U.S. 588 (1893)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Belknap v. United States, 150 U.S. 588 (1893)

Belknap v. United States

No. 90

Argued November 20-21, 1893

Decided December 11, 1893

150 U.S. 588

APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF CLAIMS

Syllabus

Ordinarily a court has no power to grant a new trial at a term subsequent to that at which the original judgment was rendered.

The Court of Claims, however, under Rev.Stat. § 1088, has power to grant a new trial in such case on a motion on behalf of the United States, and a mandate from this Court does not affect that power.

When such a motion is made on behalf of the government on the ground that its officers understood that there was an agreement that a case which had been appealed to this Court by the United States, and had been remanded to that court by this Court on the ground that the appellants had not entered it here, was to abide the result in another case appealed from the Court of Claims by the United States and decided here in their favor, the granting of the motion by the Court of Claims mast be taken by this Court as conclusive on the question whether the evidence warranted the action of that court, as that evidence is not preserved.

The payment to an Indian agent of the amount appropriated by Congress for the payment of his salary being less than the amount fixed by general law as the salary of the office, and his receipt of the sum paid "in full of my pay for services for the period herein expressed," is a full satisfaction of the claim.

United States v. Langston,118 U. S. 389, explained and limited.

Page 150 U. S. 589

MR. JUSTICE BREWER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The history of this case is as follows: in 1882, the appellant filed his petition in the Court of Claims alleging that as a duly appointed and commissioned United States Indian agent, for a series of years, he was entitled to a salary of $1,800 per annum; that he had only received a certain portion of that amount, and praying judgment for the balance. A trial was had before the court, which, on March 19, 1883, filed its findings of fact, and rendered judgment in his favor for the sum of $3,400. At the same time was tried the case of Charles Mitchell v. United States, and they were both argued as presenting the same question of law -- to-wit, whether a public officer could

"recover the difference between the salary established by law for the office which he held and the amount paid to him in accordance with the appropriations made by Congress."

An appeal was taken in each case by the United States. That in the Mitchell case was duly entered in this Court, and was submitted on briefs on March 30, 1883. On November 5 of that year, this Court rendered its decision in favor of the United States, reversing the judgment of the court below. 109 U. S. 109 U.S. 146.

The appeal in the present case was taken on June 14, 1883, but was not entered by the appellant at the October term following, as required by the rules of this Court. Thereupon the appellee caused the appeal to be docketed and dismissed, and on May 12, 1884, filed with the Court of Claims the mandate, in which the following orders were set out:

"And whereas, in the present term of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eighty-three, the said cause came on to be heard before the Supreme Court, and it appearing that the appellant has failed to have its appeal filed and docketed in conformity with the rules of this Court, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this Court that his appeal from the Court of Claims be, and the same is hereby, docketed and dismissed."

"And it is further ordered that this cause be, and the same is hereby, remanded to the said Court of Claims. (May 5, 1884.)"

"You therefore are hereby commanded that such proceedings

Page 150 U. S. 590

be had in said cause as, according to right and justice and the laws of the United States, ought to be had, the said appeal notwithstanding."

On the 13th of May, the United States, by the Attorney General, filed a motion in the Court of Claims for a new trial on the ground that wrong and injustice in the premises had been done to the United States. The reasons therefor, as stated, were that the two cases were heard together; that in both the judgment was for the plaintiff, and both cases were appealed to the Supreme Court; that the same questions of law were involved in each case, and that the defendants understood that the appeal in this case was to abide the decision in the case of Mitchell; that, relying upon this understanding, they took no further action in this case, and it was only in consequence of such reliance that the transcript was not filed by them in the District Court, and the opportunity thus given to the appellant to have the case docketed and dismissed; that by the Mitchell case the law has been decided adversely to the claim of petitioner, and therefore that wrong and injustice would under the circumstances be done by permitting the judgment to stand.

On the second of June, 1884, the Court of Claims sustained the motion, and granted a new trial. Of this appellant complains. As the new trial was granted at a term subsequent to that at which the original judgment was rendered (the terms of the Court of Claims beginning on the first Monday in December in each year, Rev.Stat. § 1052), there would ordinarily be no power in the court to grant such new trial, Coughlin v. District of Columbia,106 U. S. 7; Brooks v. Railroad Company,102 U. S. 107. But there is a peculiar provision applicable only to the Court of Claims, which is as follows:

"SEC 1088. The Court of Claims at any time while any claim it pending before it or on appeal from it or within two years next after the final disposition of such claim, may, on motion on behalf of the United States, grant a new trial and stay the payment of any judgment therein upon such evidence, cumulative or otherwise, as shall satisfy the court

Page 150 U. S. 591

that any fraud, wrong, or injustice in the premises has been done to the United States; but until an order is made staying the payment of a judgment, the same shall be payable and paid as now provided by law."

In order to give full effect to this statute, the Court of Claims must have power to grant a new trial at a term subsequent to that at which the judgment was rendered, for it explicitly provides that it may be exercised at any time within two years. This section has been before this Court in several cases, and in them its scope and effect considered and determined. United States v. Ayres, 9 Wall. 608; United States v. Crusell, 12 Wall. 175; Ex Parte Russell, 13 Wall. 664; Ex Parte United States, 16 Wall. 699; United States v. Young,94 U. S. 258; Young v. United States,95 U. S. 642, 95 U. S. 643. That a mandate from this Court does not prevent the operation of this statute or take away the power or interfere with the discretion of the Court of Claims to grant a new trial was settled in Ex Parte Russell, supra.

The testimony presented to the court in support of this motion is not preserved. We must, therefore, assume it to have been sufficient to establish the facts stated in the motion, and the only question for us to consider is as to the power of the court, upon those facts, to order a new trial. Counsel for appellant contend that they disclose nothing but a mere mistake of law, or ignorance of the rules and practice of this Court, on the part of the officers of the government, and that under Green v. Elbert,137 U. S. 615, such matters are insufficient. But we do not so understand the record. No case abides the decision of another case except by agreement of the parties, and so, when it is stated that the defendants understood that the appeal in this was to abide the decision in the Mitchell case, what is meant is that they understood that an agreement to that effect had been made. If such an agreement had actually been made by the parties, and then, in willful disregard thereof, one party had taken the steps disclosed here of docketing and dismissing the appeal, a court would properly interfere to prevent the successful consummation of such attempted wrong. Instead of charging

Page 150 U. S. 592

such an agreement, and a deliberate breach thereof by the appellant, all that is claimed by the United States is that there was on their part an understanding that there was such an agreement, and that they acted in reliance upon such an understanding. We are to assume that the testimony showed that there were reasonable grounds for believing in the existence of such an agreement and for acting in reliance thereupon. The defendants were guilty of no laches or omissions, and the effect upon them is the same as if there had been in fact an agreement and a willful breach. That being so, it would evidently be a wrong, an injustice to the government, not to relieve it from the consequences of such a mistake of fact and to continue in force a judgment which ought not to have been rendered. We think that the Court of Claims was authorized, upon the facts stated in this motion, to grant a new trial.

It becomes, therefore, necessary to consider the facts as disclosed by the findings made upon the second trial and in connection with the various provisions of the statutes. Section 2052 of the Revised Statutes contains this provision:

"The President is authorized to appoint from time to time, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, the following Indian agents: . . . Four for the tribes in California at an annual salary of eighteen hundred dollars, each."

On February 4, 1876, appellant was commissioned by the President as agent for the Indians of the Tule River agency in California. On filing his bond, he received a letter enclosing his commission in which it was stated that his "compensation remains at $1,500 per annum." On the 5th of March, 1880, he was reappointed, with a commission in like form. Notice of this appointment was sent to him on the 15th of March by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and in the letter was this statement: "The salary of the office is $1,000 per annum." The appellant discharged the duties of the office from the time of his appointment continuously until September 30, 1882, and received the salary appropriated by Congress therefor, by the several appropriation acts during that time, and his receipts for such compensation contain this

Page 150 U. S. 593

recital: "Being in full or our (my) pay for services for the period herein expressed." Neither the appropriation law in force when the Revised Statutes took effect nor any of those of the nine succeeding years appropriated a salary of $1,800 for the Tule River agency. Such appropriations were as follows:

1873-74, Act Feb. 14, 1873, (17 Stat. 437) . . . $1,500

1874-75, Act June 22, 1874, (18 Stat. 146) . . . 1,500

1875-76, Act March 3, 1875, (18 Stat. 421) . . . 1,500

1876-77, Act Aug. 15, 1876, (19 Stat. 176) . . . 1,500

1877-78, Act March 3, 1877, (19 Stat. 271) . . . 1,500

1878-79, Act May 27, 1878, (20 Stat. 63) . . . 1,000

1879-80, Act Feb. 17, 1879, (20 Stat. 295) . . . 1,000

1880-81, Act May 11, 1880, (21 Stat. 114) . . . 1,000

1881-82, Act March 3, 1881, (21 Stat. 425) . . . 1,000

1882-83, Act May 17, 1882, (22 Stat. 68) . . . 1,000

Of these ten appropriation acts, the first four made appropriations for only three agencies in California (Hoopa Valley, Round Valley, and Tule River), the fifth made an appropriation for only two of these agencies, (Round Valley and Tule River), while the last five made appropriations for four agencies, that of Hoopa Valley being restored and the Mission agency being added, but the salary of the agent at this last point was at first fixed at $3,000, and by the Act of June 14, 1878, 20 Stat. 115, 119, c. 191, reduced to $1,300 at which figure it remained under the other acts.

In all these ten acts, the appropriations for the pay of the other California agents, as well as the one at Tule River, differ from the figure named in section 2052; in the first five acts, the other appropriations being at the same rate as that allowed for Tule River, while in the last five, the Round Valley agent is paid $1,500, the Mission agent $1,300, and the other two $1,000.

Since this case was commenced, we have had before us the following cases in which a claim was made on behalf of an officer of the United States of a right to recover more than

Page 150 U. S. 594

the amount appropriated by Congress for his compensation by reason of the existence of a statute prescribing a salary. United States v. Fisher,109 U. S. 143; United States v. Mitchell,109 U. S. 146; United States v. Langston,118 U. S. 389; Wallace v. United States,133 U. S. 180, and Dunwoody v. United States,143 U. S. 578. In one of these cases, United States v. Langston, we held that the act prescribing the salary controlled; in the others, that the appropriation acts were conclusive as to the amount the officer was entitled to receive. The difference in result does not, however, show a variation in ruling. On the contrary, all the cases have been decided in accordance with the general rule laid down in United States v. Mitchell, supra: "The whole question depends on the intention of Congress as expressed in the statutes."

In the Langston case, it appeared that the salary of the minister to Hayti was fixed by the Revised Statutes at $7,500, and that that sum was annually appropriated until the year 1883. In the statutes of two of those years, to-wit, 1879 and 1880, it was expressly provided that the appropriation should be in full for the annual salary, and that all laws and parts of laws in conflict with the provisions of the act should be repealed. In the years 1883, 1884, and 1885, there was simply an appropriation of $5,000 for the minister to Hayti. The plaintiff held the office from September 28, 1877, until July 24, 1885. Until 1883, he was paid at the rate of $7,500 per annum, but for the remaining years he received only the amount of the appropriation, to-wit, $5,000 per annum. And this Court held that there was nothing in the language of these last appropriation acts which could be satisfactorily construed as repealing the express language of the section fixing the salary at $7,500 per annum -- a salary which had been recognized by Congress for ten years in its appropriations, and by language in some of the acts clearly declaring that to be the salary attached to that office. Repeals by implication are not favored, and it was held that the mere failure to appropriate the full salary was not, in and of itself alone, sufficient to repeal the prior act, and yet the Court conceded

Page 150 U. S. 595

at the close of the opinion that "the case is not free from difficulty.

Official Supreme Court caselaw is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia caselaw is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.