United States v. Lee,
106 U.S. 196 (1882)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196 (1882)

United States v. Lee

Decided December 4, 1882

106 U.S. 196


1. The doctrine that, except where Congress has provided, the United States cannot be sued examined and reaffirmed.

2. That doctrine has no application to officers and agents of the United States who, when as such holding for public uses possession of property, are sued therefor by a person claiming to be the owner thereof or entitled thereto, but the lawfulness of that possession and the right or title of the United States to the property may, by a court of competent jurisdiction, be the subject matter of inquiry and adjudged accordingly.

3. The constitutional provisions that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor private property taken for public use without just compensation, relate to those rights whose protection is peculiarly within the province of the judicial branch of the government. Cases examined which show that the courts extend protection when the rights of property are unlawfully invaded by public officers.

4. In ejectment, the title relied on by the defense was a certificate of sale of the demanded premises to the United States by the commissioners under the act of Congress for the collection of direct taxes. The certificate was impeached on the ground of the refusal of the commissioners to permit the owner to pay the tax, with interest and costs, before the day of sale, by an agent or in any other way than by payment in person. Held that when the commissioners had established a uniform rule that they would receive such taxes from no one but the owner in person, it avoids such sale and a tender is unnecessary, since it would be of no avail.

5. Bennett v. Hunter, 9 Wall. 324, Tacey v. Irwin, 18 id. 549, and Atwood v. Weems, 99 U. S. 183, reexamined and the principle they establish held to apply to a purchase at such a tax sale by the United States as well as by a private person.

The facts are stated in the opinion of the Court.

Primary Holding

When an action does not need to involve the United States as a defendant or a necessary party, the principle of sovereign immunity should not be invoked to deny plaintiffs the judicial enforcement of their rights.


The federal government purchased the estate of the widow of former Confederate general Robert E. Lee, allegedly based on a failure to pay a $92 assessment under a tax to support the Civil War. However, her estate had attempted to make payment to the tax commissioners but was told that only the owner in person could pay overdue taxes. This rule eventually was determined to be invalid, but the government took possession of the property and built the Arlington Cemetery and a fort on parts of it.

The son of the Lees brought an ejectment action in state court against the federal officers who were in control of the property. He argued that he had title to it under his grandfather's will. The federal officers removed the case to federal court, and the attorney general sought to have it dismissed on jurisdictional grounds, arguing that the government held possession of the property through its sovereign and constitutional powers. The federal government was not actually a party in this case, though. Lee prevailed at a jury trial.



  • Samuel Freeman Miller (Author)
  • Stephen Johnson Field
  • John Marshall Harlan
  • Stanley Matthews
  • Samuel M. Blatchford

The federal government was not a defendant or a necessary party in the case, and the fact that the federal government is in possession of property pursuant to a presidential order does not remove the jurisdiction of courts. In this instance, the laws giving rise to its possession were deemed to be unconstitutional, and the rightful owner had been deprived of the property by the use of illegitimate force, which was the only basis for the government's seizure and conversion of the property without just compensation.


  • Horace Gray (Author)
  • Morrison Remick Waite
  • Joseph P. Bradley
  • William Burnham Woods

Sovereign immunity prevents the federal government from being sued in any court without its consent. It does not hold property except through its agents, and the judiciary should not infringe on that right of possession.

Case Commentary

In British courts, sovereign immunity was not absolute and provided many procedural loopholes that could expose the government to liability. This case illustrates a similarly lenient understanding of the doctrine, although it has tightened in more recent decisions.

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