Underhill v. Hernandez
168 U.S. 250 (1897)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Underhill v. Hernandez, 168 U.S. 250 (1897)

Underhill v. Hernandez

No. 36

Argued October 22, 25, 1897

Decided November 29, 1897

168 U.S. 250

Syllabus

Hernandez was in command of a revolutionary army in Venezuela when an engagement took place with the government forces which resulted in the defeat of the latter, and the occupation of Bolivar by the former. Underhill was living in Bolivar, where he had constructed a waterworks system for the city under a contract with the government, and carried on a machinery repair business. He applied for a passport to leave the city, which was refused by Hernandez with a view to coerce him to operate his waterworks and his repair works for the benefit of the community and the revolutionary forces. Subsequently a passport was given him. The revolutionary government under which Hernandez was acting was recognized by the United States as the legitimate government of Venezuela. Subsequently Underhill sued Hernandez in .the Circuit Court for the Second Circuit to recover damages caused by the refusal to grant the passport, for alleged confinement of him to his own house, and for alleged assaults and affronts by Hernandez' soldiers. Judgment being rendered for defendant, the case was taken to the circuit court of appeals, where the judgment was affirmed, the court holding "that the acts of the defendant were the acts of Venezuela, and as such are not properly the subject of adjudication in the courts of another government." Held that the circuit court of appeals was justified in that conclusion.

Every sovereign state is bound to respect the independence of every other sovereign state, and the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another, done within its own territory.

In the early part of 1892, a revolution was initiated in Venezuela against the administration thereof, which the revolutionists

Page 168 U. S. 251

claimed had ceased to be the legitimate government. The principal parties to this conflict were those who recognized Palacio as their head, and those who followed the leadership of Crespo. General Hernandez belonged to the anti-administration party and commanded its forces in the vicinity of Ciudad Bolivar. On the 8th of August, 1892, an engagement took place between the armies of the two parties at Buena Vista, some seven miles from Bolivar, in which the troops under Hernandez prevailed, and on the 13th of August, Hernandez entered Bolivar and assumed command of the city. All of the local officials had in the meantime left, and the vacant positions were filled by General Hernandez, who from that date, and during the period of the transactions complained of, was the civil and military chief of the city and district. In October, the party in revolt had achieved success generally, taking possession of the capital of Venezuela October 6, and on October 23, 1892, the "Crespo government," so called, was formally recognized as the legitimate government of Venezuela by the United States.

George F. Underhill was a citizen of the United States, who had constructed a waterworks system for the City of Bolivar under a contract with the government, and was engaged in supplying the place with water, and he also carried on a machinery repair business. Some time after the entry of General Hernandez, Underhill applied to him, as the officer in command, for a passport to leave the city. Hernandez refused this request, and requests made by others in Underhill's behalf, until October 18, when a passport was given, and Underhill left the country.

This action was brought to recover damages for the detention caused by reason of the refusal to grant the passport, for the alleged confinement of Underhill to his own house, and for certain alleged assaults and affronts by the soldiers of Hernandez' army.

The cause was tried in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Eastern District of New York, and on the conclusion of plaintiff's case, the circuit court ruled that, upon the facts, plaintiff was not entitled to recover, and directed

Page 168 U. S. 252

a verdict for defendant on the ground that

"because the acts of defendant were those of a military commander, representing a de facto government in the prosecution of a war, he was not civilly responsible therefor."

Judgment having been rendered for defendant, the case was taken to the circuit court of appeals, and by that court affirmed upon the ground

"that the acts of the defendant were the acts of the government of Venezuela, and as such are not properly the subject of adjudication in the courts of another government."

65 F. 577. Thereupon the cause was brought to this Court on certiorari.

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