Congress enacted that A B and C D
"be permitted to sue in the Court of Claims, which court shall
pass upon the law and facts as to the liability
Page 130 U. S. 453
of the United States for the acts of its officer"
" . . . collector of internal revenue" etc., "and this suit may
be maintained, any statute of limitation to the contrary
that this was a waiver of the
defense based upon the statute of limitations, but not a waiver of
the defense based on the general principle of law that the United
States are not liable for unauthorized wrongs inflicted on the
citizen by their officers while engaged in the discharge of
The case is stated in the opinion.
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, after stating the facts in the foregoing
language, delivered the opinion of the Court.
These are appeals from a judgment against the United States in
favor of Joseph M. Cumming and Hamilton J. Miller, surviving
members of the late firm of J. M. Cumming & Co., formerly
manufacturers, distillers, vendors, and exporters of whiskeys and
alcohols, for the sum of thirty-six thousand dollars as the damages
sustained by that firm in consequence of certain acts of Joshua F.
Bailey, Collector of Internal Revenue for the Fourth Internal
Revenue District of New York, and of other officers who served
under or with him. The amount for which the plaintiffs asked
judgment was $1,635,753.
The suit was brought under the authority of the following Act of
Congress, approved February 26, 1885, 23 Stat. 639, c. 167.
"An Act for the relief of Joseph M. Cumming, Hamilton J. Miller,
and William McRoberts."
"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of
the United States of America in Congress assembled
M. Cumming, Hamilton J. Miller, and William McRoberts, late
copartners in the business of commission merchants and bonded
warehousemen in the City of New York, be permitted to sue in the
Court of Claims, which court shall pass upon the law and facts as
to the liability of the United
Page 130 U. S. 454
States for the acts of its officer, Joshua F. Bailey, by reason
of the seizure, detention, and closing up of the commission houses
and bonded warehouses of said copartners, for the breaking up and
interruption of their said business, and for the seizure and
detention of the property, books, and papers in and connected with
said business, by Joshua F. Bailey, Collector of Internal Revenue
for the Fourth Internal Revenue District of said state or by said
Bailey and other internal revenue officers. The United States shall
appear to defend against said suit, and either party may appeal to
the Supreme Court as in ordinary cases against the United States in
said court, and said suit may be maintained any statute of
limitations to the contrary notwithstanding."
"Approved February 26, 1885."
It is evident that Congress intended to open the doors of the
Court of Claims to the plaintiffs so far as to permit them to sue
the government unembarrassed by any defense of the statute of
limitations and to obtain an adjudication, based upon "the law and
facts," as to the liability of the United States for the wrongs of
which complaint is made. In other words, the jurisdiction of the
Court of Claims was so enlarged as to embrace this particular
demand and to authorize such judgment as, under all the evidence,
would be consistent with law. Here, however, we are met with the
suggestion that there is a general principle applicable, as this
Court said in Gibbons v. United
8 Wall. 269, 75 U. S. 275
to all governments, which
"forbids, on a policy imposed by necessity, that they should
hold themselves liable for unauthorized wrongs inflicted by their
officers on the citizen, though occurring while engaged in the
discharge of official duties."
Did Congress intend to abrogate this principle so far as the
demands of the present plaintiffs are concerned? Did it invest the
Court of Claims with jurisdiction to render a judgment against the
United States upon its appearing that the revenue officers
transcended the authority conferred upon them by law or had
exercised their authority in such manner as made them personally
liable in damages to the plaintiffs? There would be some ground for
an affirmative answer to these questions if the statute had not
required the court to pass upon both the law and the facts "as to
Page 130 U. S. 455
liability of the United States." If the facts disclosed a case
of unauthorized wrongs done to the plaintiffs by the revenue
officers of the United States, the question, by the very terms of
the act, would still remain whether the United States were liable
in law for such damages as the plaintiffs had sustained. There
would seem to be no escape from the conclusion that Congress
intended that the liability of the government should be determined
by the settled principles of law. The only right waived by the
government was a defense based upon the statute of limitations.
Erwin v. United States, 97 U. S. 392
Tillson v. United States, 100 U. S.
; McClure v. United States, 116 U.
It is said that the act, professedly for the relief of the
plaintiffs, would be unavailing unless it is so constructed as to
relieve them from the operation of the rule laid down in
Gibbons v. United States.
A satisfactory answer to this
suggestion is that if Congress intended to do more than give the
plaintiffs an opportunity, in an action for damages brought in the
Court of Claims, to test the question as to the liability of the
United States upon the law and facts for the alleged wrongs of
their officers, that intention would have been expressed in
language not to be misunderstood. It is as if the plaintiffs
asserted before Congress the liability, in law, of the government
for the damages they sustained, and Congress permitted them to
invoke the jurisdiction of the Court of Claims in order that there
might be a judicial determination of the question by that tribunal,
with the right of appeal "as in ordinary cases against the United
States in said court."
According to this construction of the act, the plaintiffs were
not entitled to judgment against the United States in any sum, for
if Collector Bailey and other revenue officers did nothing more
than the law authorized them to do, neither they nor the government
would be liable in damages, while if they acted illegally, they
would be personally liable in damages, not the government.
The judgment is reversed with directions to render judgment
in favor of the United States.
MR. JUSTICE MILLER and MR. JUSTICE FIELD dissented.