Heirs of Emerson v. Hall
38 U.S. 409

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U.S. Supreme Court

Heirs of Emerson v. Hall, 38 U.S. 13 Pet. 409 409 (1839)

Heirs of Emerson v. Hall

38 U.S. (13 Pet.) 409

Syllabus

The Josepha Secunda was condemned for a violation of the laws of the United States prohibiting the slave trade, and by a decree the Supreme Court of Louisiana allowed the claim of the collector, the surveyor, and naval officer, who had prosecuted for the forfeiture, to a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the property condemned. This decree was afterwards reversed, and the whole proceeds adjudged to the United States, on an appeal to the Supreme Court. William Emerson, the surveyor, afterwards died, and in 1831, Congress passed an act for the relief of the collector, the heirs of William Emerson, and the heirs of the naval officer, under the authority of which the sums which had been adjudged to those officers, and which had remained in the District Court of Louisiana, were by an order of the court paid to them according to the provisions of the law. One of the creditors of William Emerson claimed the sum so paid to his legal representatives, as assets for the payment of his debt. Held that the payment made by order of the district court to the minor children of William Emerson, as his legal heirs, was rightfully made, and that the same cannot be considered in their hands as assets for the payment of the debts of their father.

The prosecution of the Josepha Secunda by the officers of the customs of Louisiana was not done under the authority of any law, or by any authority, and these acts imposed no obligation, either in law or equity, on the government to compensate them. The claim for those services could not have been set up either as an equitable or a legal offset to any demand of the government against them, or either of them, while, under the rules of law, any specific demand on the government which imposed on it even an equitable obligation, might be set up as an offset.

Services rendered under the requirements of law, or of contract, for which a compensation is fixed, constitute a legal demand on the government. Services rendered under an authority which is casual, or in some degree discretionary, may constitute an equitable claim. No individual can be made a debtor against his will. Voluntary benefits may be conferred on him, which may excite his gratitude; or which in the exercise of his generosity he may suitably reward. But this depends on his own volition. It would constitute a singular item under the law of assets, to raise a charge against an individual for

a benefit conferred by some voluntary act of kindness. The rule is the same, whether the benefit be conferred on the government or an individual.

A claim against a foreign government for spoliations is not of this character. The demand in such a case is founded on the law of nations, and the obligation is perfect on the offending government.

In 1829, Charles H. Hall, residing in New York, presented a petition to the Court of Probates of the City and Parish of New Orleans, stating that the estate of William Emerson, deceased, was indebted to him in the sum of seventeen hundred dollars and upwards, with interest, and he prayed the court that Charles Byrne, the tutor and curator of the children of William Emerson, should be decreed to allow the debt, and to pay the same.

Mr. Byrne, as tutor and curator of the minor heirs of William Emerson, by his answer, denied that the estate of Emerson was in any wise indebted to the petitioner, and on 8 February, 1830, a decree was given in the court of probates against the estate of Emerson for the amount of the debt claimed in the petition.

Afterwards a case was submitted to the court of probates by the

Page 38 U. S. 410

petitioner, Charles H. Hall, and Charles Byrne, tutor and curator, &c., by which it appeared that William Emerson died in the year 1828; previous to that time, he, as surveyor, B. Chew, as collector, and E. Lorrain, as naval officer of the port of New Orleans, had, at their sole expense, the brig Josepha Secunda condemned in the name of the United States in the District Court of the United States for the Louisiana District for an infraction of the slave laws; they claimed title to the proceeds of this seizure as the true and actual captors and seizors, who made the last and only effectual seizure and prosecuted the same to a final decree of condemnation. The decree of the district court allowed the claim, but the case having been brought up before the Supreme Court of the United States, that tribunal reversed the judgment on the ground that Congress had made no provision for their compensation, and they were left, in common with those who made the military seizure, to the liberality of the government. Thereupon the said collector and surveyor and naval officer applied for relief to Congress, and obtained from that branch of the government an act entitled "An act for the relief of Beverly Chew, the heirs of William Emerson, deceased, and the heirs of Lorrain, deceased," the same being duly approved on 3 March, 1831, and in compliance with the provisions of said act, upon motion before the district court, the moneys remaining in court after the payment of costs were paid over to Beverly Chew and to the legal representatives of both Emerson and Lorrain.

The question for the decision of the Court was whether the money received by the minor children, as the legal representatives of William Emerson, by virtue of the Act of Congress of 3 of March, 1831, could be made liable for the payment of the debts of their father.

The judge of the court of probates decreed that the judgment rendered in favor of the petitioner should be satisfied out of those moneys or any other assets belonging to the estate in the hands of the curator or in those of the heirs of the deceased.

Mr. Byrne, as curator and tutor, appealed from this decree, to the Supreme Court of Louisiana, by which court the decree of the court of probate was affirmed.

This appeal, under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, was prosecuted on behalf of the heirs of William Emerson.

Page 38 U. S. 411

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