United States v. Clark
96 U.S. 37

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Clark, 96 U.S. 37 (1887)

United States v. Clark

96 U.S. 37



1. When the Court of Claims sends here as part of its finding all the evidence on which a fact essential to the judgment there rendered was found, from which it appears that there was no legal evidence to establish such fact, this Court must, on appeal, reverse the judgment.

2. At common law, a party to a suit is a competent witness to prove the contents of a trunk or package, which, by other testimony, is shown to have been lost or destroyed under circumstances that render some one liable for the loss.

3. Sec. 1079 of the Revised Statutes was intended to do no more than to restore in the Court of Claims the common law rule excluding parties as witnesses, which had been abolished by the Act of July 2, 1864, 13 Stat. 351, and hence the petitioner in this case is a competent witness to prove the contents of a package of government money taken from his official safe by robbers.

4. The petitioner being competent, neither his testimony before the court-martial which convicted the robbers nor his report of the loss to his superior officer is admissible as independent or original evidence, though it might be proper as corroborative of his own testimony.

5. The statute of limitation of suits in the Court of Claims, Rev.Stat., sec. 1069, is not applicable to a suit under secs. 1059 1062, because such a suit is brought to establish, not a claim in the just sense of that word, but a peculiar defense to a cause of action of the United States against the petitioner, and so long as the United States neglects to bring suit to establish that cause of action, so long must he be allowed to set up any defense thereto not in itself a separate demand.

6. The petitioner's right to sue in the Court of Claims did not accrue until the accounting officers held him liable for the sum lost, by refusing to credit his account therewith, and their final action was within six years before this suit was brought.

This case was, on the appeal of the United States, before this Court at the last term, and is reported in 94 U. S. 94 U.S. 73, where the finding of the Court of Claims is stated.

The judgment below was then reversed, on account of an insufficient finding, and the cause remanded for further proceedings. Upon a subsequent trial, the Court of Claims made a further finding, and rendered judgment for Clark. The United States then brought the case here. As the additional finding is set forth in the opinion of this Court, it is not necessary to insert it here.

Page 96 U. S. 38

MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal from the Court of Claims, and very few cases involving no larger sum of money have given us more trouble. It was before us at the last term, and is reported. 94 U. S. 94 U.S. 73. Upon an examination of the record, after the case had been submitted to us, it was discovered that on an essential fact in issue the Court of Claims had made no finding, but had sent us the evidence on that point. The judgment was therefore reversed, on the ground that there was no sufficient finding of the facts on which to render a judgment, and the cause was remitted to that court for further proceedings.

The Court of Claims has now found with sufficient distinctness the existence of the fact required, but it still sends to us, with the record, the evidence on which it so found. It is this which produces the embarrassment, as we shall presently see.

The suit is brought by Clark, under the Act of May 9, 1866, 14 Stat. 44, Rev.Stat., secs. 1059, 1062, which authorizes the Court of Claims to hear and determine the claim of any disbursing officer for relief from responsibility on account of capture or other loss of funds while in the line of his duty, and for which such officer was and is held responsible, and, in case the loss has been found to be without fault or negligence on the part of such officer, to make a decree setting forth the amount thereof, which shall be allowed as a credit by the accounting officers of the treasury in the settlement of his accounts.

The Court of Claims finds that the claimant lost by robbery, while in the line of his duty as assistant paymaster in the army, at Franklin, Texas, on the sixth day of April, 1865, a package of government funds; that the package was in his official safe at his quarters, and the loss was without fault or neglect on his part. The fifth finding of the court, and the one which was made to supply the defect found in the case when it was here before, is as follows: "The package of government funds which the claimant lost by robbery, as above stated, contained the sum of $15,979.87."

If this were all, there would be no difficulty in holding that these findings sufficiently established all that is necessary to support the decree in favor of the claimant for a credit of that sum in his account with the government. But the Court of

Page 96 U. S. 39

Claims has mingled with, and made a part of its finding of facts, and sent here as part of the record, the proceedings of a court-martial which tried and convicted Thomas Boylan and Louis Morales of committing the robbery by which the money was lost. It sufficiently appears that the only evidence on which the Court of Claims made its fifth finding -- namely the amount of the money which was in the government package so lost, was the record of the court-martial, and that claimant there testified to the amount of the loss. Also that he was of good character, personally and officially; had always kept regular and exact accounts of the funds in his official custody; made due returns in regard to them, and properly accounted therefor. And that he immediately reported to his superior officer that the funds in that safe were $15,979.87, which was the amount of the loss appearing in his official reports, and charged against him as a deficiency on the final revision and settlement of his accounts by the accounting officers of the treasury.

It is clear that upon this testimony alone the Court of Claims fixed the sum lost by claimant. We are asked by the counsel for the government to hold that it is not competent evidence to establish that fact.

It is manifest that, before we can do this, we must also hold that where that court has found in due form, and presented to us one of those ultimate facts which it is required to find, and which is necessary to its judgment, and has at the same time presented as part of its finding all the evidence on which that fact was found, we can look at both findings to see whether that evidence was competent proof of that fact. This is precisely what was done in Moore v. United States,91 U. S. 270.

Counsel for the United States insist that a party in the Court of Claims has a right to bring before this Court for review any and every ruling of the Court of Claims upon the admission or the rejection of evidence, and also its weight and effect upon the case. The question thus presented is one of much perplexity, and involves the right to a bill of exceptions in a court which sits without a jury, where the evidence is all in writing, and whose judgments we have, by our rules, sought to make final as to all the facts in the case.

We do not propose here to enter this field of inquiry further

Page 96 U. S. 40

than this case requires. And we think it does require us not to weigh the evidence, nor to decide whether the court below was bound to note the exception prayed by counsel, or even to include in their findings the matters of evidence we have above stated. But we are of opinion that when that court has presented, as part of their findings, what they show to be all the testimony on which they base one of the essential, ultimate facts, which they have also found, and on which their judgment rests, we must, if that testimony is not competent evidence of that fact, reverse the judgment for that reason. For here is, in the very findings of the court, made to support its judgment, the evidence that in law that judgment is wrong. And this not on the weight or balance of testimony, nor on any partial view of whether a particular piece of testimony is admissible, but whether, upon the whole of the testimony as presented by the court itself, there is any evidence to support its verdict -- that is, its finding of the ultimate fact in question.

Entering upon the inquiry, whether there is here any evidence on which the court could have found the amount of the loss by the robbery, it seems too plain for argument that the record of the court-martial is wholly incompetent.

1. Clark was no party to that proceeding, and is not, therefore, bound by its findings; and, by a well known rule, there is no mutuality, and therefore it cannot bind the United States.

2. The amount of the robbery was in no way an essential issue in the trial of the robbers.

3. And it may well be doubted whether a criminal proceeding in a military court can be used to establish any collateral fact in a civil proceeding in another court.

Nor can the evidence of a witness in that case be competent to establish a fact in another case, without some reason, such as his death or insanity since it was given. We will recur to this point presently.

Was the good character of the claimant, the regularity of his accounts, and the prompt report of the loss and its amount, competent evidence to establish that amount? The only thing in all this which could have any tendency to prove the sum lost is the report of its loss. This is but the testimony of the party claimant, and testimony not under oath. If he is incompetent

Page 96 U. S. 41

as a witness, this less direct mode of testifying must also be excluded. If he is competent and had been introduced on the stand, this fact might be used as corroborative evidence. But while he is alive and competent, it must be excluded as primary or independent evidence, because there is better evidence in the sworn statement of the party himself, produced on the stand and subject to cross examination.

It is obvious, however, that the court or the counsel were laboring under the conviction that claimant was not a competent witness, and were struggling to find other evidence of a fact which was known to him alone. In this we think they were mistaken, and that for the purpose of proving the contents of the stolen package, and for that purpose alone, he was competent.

We are of opinion that, by the rules of evidence derived from the common law, as it is understood in the United States, whenever it becomes important to ascertain the contents of a box, trunk, or package which has been lost or destroyed, under circumstances that make some one liable in a court of justice for the loss, and the loss and the liability are established by other testimony, the owner or party interested in the loss, though he may be a party to the suit, is a competent witness to prove the contents so lost or destroyed. I Greenl.Evid.

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