This is apparently the first case in which a federal court has
been asked to issue a writ of certiorari to review a ruling by an
executive officer of the United States government.
Constant failure to apply for a particular remedy suggests that
it is due to conceded want of power in the courts to grant it.
The scope of the writ of certiorari as it exists at common law
has not been enlarged by any statute in the federal jurisdiction,
Page 229 U. S. 163
in which it has issued under statute from state courts to state
officers are not controlling in the federal courts.
While the original scope of the writ of certiorari has been
enlarged so as to serve the office of a writ of error, it has
always run from court to court or to such boards, tribunals, and
inferior jurisdictions whose findings and decisions had the quality
of a final decision and from which there was no appeal or other
method of review.
The decision of the Postmaster General that a fraud order shall
issue is not the exercise of a judicial function, and if the
decision is beyond his jurisdiction, the party injured may obtain
relief in equity; the order cannot be reviewed by certiorari.
So long as proceedings before an executive officer are in
the courts will not interfere with them. Plested v.
Abbey, 228 U. S. 42
The writ of certiorari is an extraordinary remedy, and in
deciding that it will not issue in a particular case, this Court
doe not anticipate in what cases exceptional facts may call for its
35 App.D.C. 218, 228, affirmed.
In 1909, complaint was made to the postal authorities that W. W.
Degge and the Wellington corporations, of which he was president,
were using the mails in furtherance of a fraudulent scheme. Notice
was given to Degge and the corporations, and a hearing was had
before the officer to whom, under the Postal Regulations, the
disposition of this class of cases was committed. He found that the
charges were true, and to his finding he attached a copy of all the
evidence which had been taken. The report was confirmed by the
Postmaster General, who issued an order directing the postmaster at
Boulder, Colorado, not to deliver mail addressed to Degge or to
these corporations, but to return all such letters to the sender
with the word "Fraudulent" plainly stamped on the envelope.
Rev.Stat. §§ 3929, 4041.
Degge, the corporations, and some of the stockholders thereafter
filed petitions in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia
alleging that the officer before whom the hearing had been had was
without power to make report on which the Postmaster General had
acted; that there was no testimony to show the existence of a
Page 229 U. S. 164
scheme, and no evidence whatever to support the finding. It was
alleged that the order was arbitrary, in excess of the power of the
Postmaster General, and void. The petitioners prayed that the court
would issue writs of certiorari directing the Postmaster General to
certify the record to the court, and that, upon hearing and review
thereof, the court would set aside the order. A rule to show cause
was granted. The Postmaster General demurred on the ground that the
court was without jurisdiction to issue the writ, and subject
thereto answered, attaching the record and the evidence on the
hearing before the officer of the Post Office Department having
charge of the Fraud Orders investigations.
The case was heard by the Supreme Court of the District of
Columbia on petition, demurrer, and answer. After a hearing, the
court dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals of the District,
without passing on the right to issue the writ, affirmed the
judgment upon the ground that the evidence supported the order. The
petitioners appealed, and on the argument in this Court, the
government renews the contention that the district court was
without jurisdiction to issue the writ of certiorari to the
Page 229 U. S. 169
MR. JUSTICE LAMAR, after making the foregoing statement,
delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case is the first instance, so far as we can find, in which
a federal court has been asked to issue a writ of certiorari to
review a ruling by an executive officer of the
Page 229 U. S. 170
United States government. That at once suggests that the failure
to make such application has been due to the conceded want of power
to issue the writ to such officers. For, since the adoption of the
Constitution, there have been countless rulings by heads of
Departments that directly affected personal and property rights,
and where the writ of certiorari, if available, would have
furnished an effective method by which to test the validity of
-judicial orders under attack. The modern decisions
cited to sustain the power of the court to act in the present case
are based on state procedure and statutes that authorize the writ
to issue not only to inferior tribunals, boards, assessors, and
administrative officers, but even to the chief executive of a state
in proceedings where a quasi
-judicial order has been made.
But none of these decisions are in point in a federal jurisdiction
where no statute has been passed to enlarge the scope of the writ
at common law.
In ancient times, it was used to compel the production of a
record for use as evidence; more often to supplement a defective
record in an appellate court, and later, to remove, before judgment
-- Harris v. Barber, 129 U. S. 369
-- a record from a court without jurisdiction, and with a view of
preventing error, rather than of correcting it. When, later still,
its scope was enlarged so as to make it serve the office of a writ
of error, certiorari was granted only in those instances in which
the inferior tribunal had acted without jurisdiction, or in
disregard of statutory provisions. But in those cases the writ ran
to boards (Reaves v. Ainsworth, 219
U. S. 297
), officers, tribunals, and inferior
judicatures whose findings and decisions, even though erroneous,
had the quality of a final judgment, and there being no right of
appeal or other method of review, the extraordinary writ of
certiorari was resorted to from necessity to afford a remedy where
there would otherwise have been a denial of justice. But, in all
those cases, it ran
Page 229 U. S. 171
from court to court, including boards, officers, or tribunals
having a limited statutory jurisdiction, but whose judgments would
be conclusive unless set aside.
The plaintiffs in error insist that, under these common law
principles, the writ should issue here because, having to act "upon
evidence satisfactory to him" (Rev.Stat. § 3929), and notice and a
hearing having been given, the Postmaster General acted in a
judicial capacity in making the order, which was therefore subject
to review on certiorari because he exceeded his jurisdiction, and,
without any proof of fraud in the use of the mails, deprived
plaintiffs in error of the valuable right to receive letters and
money through the post office.
It is true that the Postmaster General gave notice and a hearing
to the persons specially to be affected by the order, and that, in
making his ruling, he may be said to have acted in a
-judicial capacity. But the statute was passed
primarily for the benefit of the public at large, and the order was
for them and their protection. That fact gave an administrative
quality to the hearing and to the order, and was sufficient to
prevent it from being subject to review by writ of certiorari. The
Postmaster General could not exercise judicial functions, and, in
making the decision, he was not an officer presiding over a
tribunal where his ruling was final unless reversed. Not being a
judgment, it was not subject to appeal, writ of error, or
certiorari. Not being a judgment, in the sense of a final
adjudication, the plaintiffs in error were not concluded by his
decision, for had there been an arbitrary exercise of statutory
power, or a ruling in excess of the jurisdiction conferred, they
had the right to apply for and obtain appropriate relief in a court
of equity. American School v. McAnnulty, 187 U. S.
; Philadelphia Co. v. Stimson, 223
U. S. 620
The fact that there was this remedy is itself sufficient to take
the case out of the principle on which, at common
Page 229 U. S. 172
law, right to the writ was founded. For there it issued to
officers and tribunals only because there was no other method of
preventing injustice. Besides, if the common law writ, with all of
its incidents, could be construed to apply to administrative and
-judicial rulings, it could, with a greater show of
authority, issue to remove a record before decision, and so prevent
a ruling in any case where it was claimed there was no jurisdiction
to act. This would overturn the principle that, as long as the
proceedings are in fieri,
the courts will not interfere
with the hearing and disposition of matters before the Departments.
Plested v. Abbey, 228 U. S. 42
228 U. S. 51
hold that the writ could issue either before or after an
administrative ruling would make the dispatch of business in the
Departments wait on the decisions of the courts, and not only lead
to consequences of the most manifest inconvenience, but would be an
invasion of the executive by the judicial branch of the
The writ of certiorari is one of the extraordinary remedies,
and, being such, it is impossible to anticipate what exceptional
facts may arise to call for its use; but the present case is not of
that character, but rather an instance of an attempt to use the
writ for the purpose of reviewing an administrative order.
Public Clearing House v. Coyne, 194 U.
. This cannot be done.