United States v. Fisher - 6 U.S. 358 (1805)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Fisher, 6 U.S. 2 Cranch 358 358 (1805)
United States v. Fisher
6 U.S. (2 Cranch) 358
Priority of the United States, in cases of insolvency.
In all cases of insolvency or bankruptcy of a debtor of the United States, it is entitled to priority of payment out of his effects.
The United States was the holder of a foreign bill of exchange drawn by the bankrupt, negotiated in the regular course of trade and returned protested for nonpayment, and is entitled to a preference out of the estate of the bankrupt to the whole amount of the claim.
It is undoubtedly a well established principle in the exposition of statutes that every part is to be considered, and the intention of the legislature to be extracted from the whole. It is also true that where great inconvenience will result from a particular construction, that construction is to be avoided unless the meaning of the legislature be plain, in which case it must be obeyed.
That the consequences are to be considered in expounding laws, where the intent is doubtful is a principle not to be contradicted, but it is also true that it is a principle which must be applied with caution and which has a degree of influence dependent on the nature of the case to which it is applied when rights are infringed.
Where fundamental principles are overthrown, when the general system of the laws is departed from, the legislative intention must be expressed with irresistible clearness to induce a court of justice to suppose a design to effect such objects. But when only a political regulation is made which is inconvenient, if the intention of the legislature be expressed in terms which are sufficiently intelligible to leave no doubt in the mind when the words are taken in their ordinary sense, it would be going a great way to say that a constrained interpretation must be put upon them to avoid an inconvenience which ought to have been contemplated in the legislature when the act was passed, and which in its opinion was probably overbalanced by the particular advantages it was calculated to produce.
Of the priority to which the United States is entitled it is to be remarked that no lien is created. No bona fide transfer of property in the ordinary course of business is overreached. It is only a priority in payment, which, under different modifications, is a regulation in common use, and this priority is limited to a particular state of things when the debtor is living, though it takes effect generally if he be dead. As the Court can never be unmindful of the solemn duty imposed on the judicial department when a claim is supported by an act which conflicts with the Constitution, so the Court can never be unmindful of its duty to obey laws which are authorized by that instrument.
It has been truly said that under a Constitution conferring specific powers, the power contended for must be granted or it cannot be exerted. The power of Congress to give the priority to debts due to the United States is claimed under the authority to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper to carry into execution the powers vested by the Constitution in the government of the United States or in any department or officer thereof.
Congress must possess the choice of means, and must be empowered to use any means which are in fact conducive to the exercise of a power granted by the Constitution.
This writ of error was prosecuted by the United States, who was plaintiff in the court below.
The questions submitted to the Court, in the argument upon the writ of error were:
1. Whether an attachment laid by the United States, on property of the bankrupt in the hands of the Collector of Newport in Rhode Island after the commission of bankruptcy had issued is available against the assignees?
2. Whether the United States is entitled to be first paid and satisfied, in preference to the private creditors, a debt due to the United States by Peter Blight as endorser of a foreign bill of exchange out of the estate of the bankrupt in the hands of his assignees?