Mail Company v. Flanders - 79 U.S. 130 (1870)
U.S. Supreme Court
Mail Company v. Flanders, 79 U.S. 12 Wall. 130 130 (1870)
Mail Company v. Flanders
79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 130
1. The circuit court of the United States has no jurisdiction under the Act of March 12, 1863, commonly known as the Abandoned and Captured Property Act, where both parties are citizens of the same state.
2. Although when a court has no jurisdiction, it is in general irregular to make any order except to dismiss the suit, that rule does not apply to the action of the court in setting aside such orders as had been made improperly before the want of jurisdiction was discovered, and restoring things to the state in which they were before the improper orders were made.
The Act of March 12, 1863, [Footnote 1] known as the Abandoned or Captured Property Act, directed that property abandoned or captured within the region lately in insurrection should be turned over to agents of the federal Treasury, and by them sold at auction, and the proceeds paid into the Treasury of the United States, &c. The act goes on to say:
"Any person claiming to have been the owner of any such abandoned or captured property may prefer his claim to the proceeds thereof in the Court of Claims, and on proof to the satisfaction of said court (1) of his ownership of said property, (2) of his right to the proceeds thereof, and (3) that be has never given any aid or comfort to the present rebellion, receive the residue of such proceeds."
"No special jurisdiction in the matter was given by this statute to the circuit courts, which, if they had jurisdiction at all after the above-quoted provision from the statute, had it only under the Judiciary Act of 1789, which gives them (§ 11) jurisdiction where 'the suit is between a citizen of the state where the suit is brought and a citizen of another state.'"
With these statutes in force, the New Orleans Mail Company, a corporation of Louisiana, filed a bill in the nature of
a bill in equity in the court below against B. F. Flanders, a treasury agent, and one Fernandez, an auctioneer, both defendants, as appeared on the face of the pleadings, being citizens of Louisiana, setting forth that Flanders, pretending to proceed under the said Captured and Abandoned Property Act, had seized two steamboats, the one named Laurel Hill, the other Iberville, and that Fernandez, as auctioneer, was now about to sell them, and praying an injunction against the sale; praying also a writ of sequestration to the marshal, commanding him to keep the boats until the further order of the court. A preliminary injunction and a writ of sequestration were granted accordingly.
The defendant, Flanders, filed an "answer and plea to the jurisdiction" setting up that the steamers were captured property; that as such they had been delivered by the military authorities to him as special agent of the Treasury, under the act of Congress; and that he held the boats, and had advertised their sale, in his official capacity. He denied that the circuit court had any jurisdiction of the case made in the petition, on the ground that, by the Act of March 12, 1863, the Captured and Abandoned Property Act, the entire jurisdiction of that case was vested in the Court of Claims. He therefore prayed that the petition be dismissed.
The court entered a judgment thus:
"For reasons orally assigned, it is ordered that the injunction herein sued out be made perpetual so far as the steamer Iberville is concerned, and that said steamer he restored to the plaintiffs."
"But as retards the steamer Laurel Hill, considering that the court is without jurisdiction, it is further ordered that the injunction and sequestration be set aside and dismissed with costs, and that said steamer be turned over to B. F. Flanders, agent of the Treasury Department, as captured property."
As this judgment was rendered "for reasons orally assigned," the grounds of this discrimination between the cases of the two vessels did not appear, nor the ground on which the court supposed it had any jurisdiction whatever
of the suit against the Iberville more than against the other.
From the judgment in respect to the Laurel Hill the mail company took this appeal. Of course, as the other vessel was restored to them by the judgment of the court, they had no ground of complaint against the decree in respect to her, and, the other side not appealing, there could be no question as to the judgment given in respect to that vessel.
The case was submitted, Mr. Evarts declining to press the case for the appellant as being a plain one against him.