United States v. Schooner Peggy - 5 U.S. 103 (1801)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Schooner Peggy, 5 U.S. 1 Cranch 103 103 (1801)
United States v. Schooner Peggy
5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 103
A sentence of condemnation as prize in the circuit court, although denominated "a final sentence," is not a definitive sentence in the sense in which that term is used in the convention between the United States and the French Republic, finally ratified on 21 December, 1801, and a vessel captured as prize and condemned by the sentence of the circuit court previous to the signature of the convention, but from which sentence a writ of error was prosecuted to this Court and was depending at the time of the ratification, was restored to the owners under the stipulations of the fourth article of condemnation.
The obligation of a treaty, the supreme law of the land, must be admitted by the Court. The execution of the contract between the two nations is to be demanded from the executive of each nation; but where a treaty affects the rights of parties litigating in court, the treaty as much binds those rights, and is as much regarded by the court as an act of Congress.
It is true that in mere private cases between individuals, a court will and ought to struggle hard against a construction which will, by a retrospective operation, affect the rights of parties, but in great national concerns where individual rights acquired by war are sacrificed for national purposes, the contract making the sacrifice ought always to receive a construction conforming to its manifest import, and if the nation has given up the vested rights of the citizens, it is not for the court, but for the government, to consider whether it be a case proper for compensation.
It is in general true that the province of an appellate court is only to inquire whether a judgment when rendered is erroneous or not. But if subsequent to the judgment and before the decision of the appellate court a law intervenes and positively changes the rule which governs, the law must be obeyed if it is obligatory.
The schooner Peggy was captured as prize by the United States armed vessel The Trumbull, David Jewitt, Esq., commander, instructed to take any armed vessel or vessels sailing under the authority or pretense of authority of the French Republic. The capture was made upon 24 April, 1800, and she was sent into the District of Connecticut and was there libeled as prize. The district court ordered the schooner and cargo to be restored, and the captors appealed to the Circuit Court of the District of Connecticut for September, 1800. The circuit court reversed the decree of the district court and condemned the Peggy and cargo as prize. From this decree the owners of the Peggy prosecuted this writ of error.
On 30 September, 1801, a convention between the United States and the French Republic was signed by the plenipotentiaries of the two nations at Paris, and on 21 December, 1801, it was finally ratified by the President of the United States.
The fourth article of the convention provides that
"Property captured and not yet definitively condemned or which may be captured before the exchange of ratifications (contraband goods destined to an enemy's port excepted) shall be mutually restored. This article shall take effect from the date of the signature of the present convention. And if, from the date of the said signature, any property shall be condemned contrary to the intent of the said convention before the knowledge of this stipulation shall be obtained, the property so considered shall without delay be restored, or paid."
The question to be decided by the Court was whether, by the sentence of the Circuit Court of Connecticut of September, the schooner Peggy could be considered as definitively condemned within the meaning of the fourth article of the convention.