A suit in the district court against federal official involving
the plaintiff's right to personal property under lease from the
United States and to an injunction preventing the defendants from
taking it from his possession, should not be restrained by a writ
of prohibition from this Court, upon the ground that the suit in
effect is against the United States where the question of property
and possession presented are doubtful, and where, if they be
erroneously decided, the remedy by appeal from the district court
will be adequate. P. 263 U. S.
Rule discharged; petition denied.
Application by the United States for the writ of prohibition to
restrain the district court from entertaining further jurisdiction
over a suit against federal officers which was alleged to be in
effect a suit against the United States and its property.
Page 263 U. S. 390
MR. JUSTICE McKENNA delivered the opinion of the Court.
Motion on part of the United States, as asserted owner of
nineteen barges and four towboats, praying a writ of prohibition to
be directed to Hon. C. B. Faris, a judge of the district court,
Eastern Division of the Eastern Judicial District of Missouri, and
the other judges thereof, to prohibit him and them from asserting
and exercising jurisdiction in a certain suit brought March 25,
1923, by Edward F. Goltra against John W. Weeks, Secretary of War,
and other officers of the United States in which it was averred
that a contract was made between the United States, represented by
Maj. Gen. William M. Black Chief of Engineers of the United States
Army, as lessor and Goltra, as lessee, whereby the boats and barges
(then under construction) by the United States were leased and
chartered to Goltra for the period of five years from the date of
delivery of the boats and barges to him, Goltra, upon the payment
of certain periodical rentals and a compliance by Goltra with other
terms and conditions.
The suit by Goltra, the pleadings in which are detailed in the
petition, was brought to determine his rights under the contract
and a supplement to it.
The contract was preceded by negotiations between Goltra and
representatives of the government, particularly
Page 263 U. S. 391
with the War Department and the then Secretary of War, which
included, among other things, the construction of a fleet of
towboats and barges in the then emergency of war. But, after the
signing of the Armistice, when the emergency of war had ceased,
other negotiations were had between Goltra and the War Department
and the Secretary of War, and a lease was made, the contract above,
whereby the boats and barges were leased to Goltra, by him to be
operated on the Mississippi river and its tributaries as a common
carrier, he to pay all operating expenses, to take out fire and
marine insurance, and incur and discharge other obligations.
On May 26, 1921, the supplement to the contract was entered into
between Maj. Gen. Beach, then Chief of Engineers of the United
States Army, the successor of Black.
On March 3, 1923, Weeks, as Secretary of War, undertook to
cancel the contract for the noncompliance by Goltra, as lessee,
with its terms and conditions, and demanded the return of the boats
and barges to the United States, and the defendants on March 25,
1923, unlawfully took possession of some, and were about to take
possession of the remainder of them.
There was a prayer by Goltra for a temporary restraining order
against such action, or against any action interfering with his
possession. There was also a prayer for a temporary injunction
against any act whatsoever looking to the cancellation and
termination of the lease, or the retention of the boats and barges
taken before the attempted cancellation of the contract. The prayer
was that, upon final hearing, a decree be entered in favor of
Goltra to determine his rights under the contract and to
perpetually enjoin the defendants from interfering in any way with
his rights thereunder.
A mandatory order was issued as prayed, and an order to show
cause why a temporary injunction should not be issued.
Page 263 U. S. 392
In response to the order to show cause, the Attorney General
filed suggestions against the jurisdiction of the court, and
subsequently the other defendants made returns to the order
averring that the suit was, in purpose and effect, one against the
United States and its property.
A motion was made in accordance with the representations. It was
overruled, and the defendants granted time to plead.
It is alleged in the petition that, unless restrained, the
district court Judge will proceed with the cause and issue an
injunction as prayed by Goltra, and that such order will deprive
the United States of the possession and use of boats and barges of
the value approximately of $3,800,000.
Prohibition was prayed as above stated.
The return of Judge Faris to the petition concedes some of its
allegations and denies others. It denies the character ascribed to
Goltra's suit. It alleges that there is a right of possession of
the boats and barges in Goltra, and that, while his bill was in
course of preparation, the defendants in the suit were proceeding
with a large force of men to take from him and remove from St.
Louis the boats and barges that remained in his possession, and
that the suit was not one against the Unites states, but against
individual defendants who were proceeding in violation of law, and
it is averred that there is an adequate remedy by appeal.
The answer of Goltra to the petition is presented with elaborate
detail of fact and argument. In foundation and essence, it is the
same as that of the district court. The opinion of the court, which
was oral, is attached to it. The opinion cites that of Judge Baker
in United States Harness Co. v. Graham,
288 F. 929, in the
District Court for the Northern District of Virginia,
The merits of the case present interesting questions. The
question of the remedy is, however, the more insistent. Does the
case justify it? Prohibition is a remedy
Page 263 U. S. 393
of exigency and in exclusion of other process of relief. It is
directed against unwarranted assumptions of jurisdiction or
excesses of it. In some cases, there may be instant judgment that
such is the situation and the writ granted. In other cases, there
may be doubt and the writ denied. Ex parte Muir,
254 U. S. 522
254 U. S. 534
And doubt in the instant case would seem to be justified, for two
district courts have decided that, under circumstances such as
presented in this case, it does not involve or constitute a suit
against the United States. And also the writ is to be denied if
there be remedy against the action complained of by appeal.
Ex parte Oklahoma, 220 U. S. 191
cases cited, is a complete exposition of the writ and its uses. The
opinion in that case observed the distinctions of prior cases --
that is, that the writ is a remedy against unwarranted assumptions
of jurisdiction, and that, besides, the condition of its issue is
that the party attacking the jurisdiction has no other remedy. In
other words, the writ cannot be made to perform the office of an
appeal or writ of error. Are the decisions applicable here?
There was submitted to the court the contracts and their
construction and effect -- whether under them the United States or
its officers retained property in the boats and barges or whether
that property was transferred with the right of possession to
Goltra. The court so construed them, adjudging Goltra's right to
the property, and, necessarily, his right to the possession of it,
and that he was entitled to an injunction to protect that
possession pending the suit. From that decision there was right of
review by appeal, and it would be timely and adequate for relief if
the decision were erroneous. Judicial Code, § 129; U.S.
Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. Bray, 225 U.
, 225 U. S. 214
Denver v. New York Trust Co., 299 U.
, 299 U. S. 136
Ex parte in the Matter of Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific
Railway Co., 255 U. S. 273