United States v. Laub
Annotate this Case
37 U.S. 1 (1838)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Laub, 37 U.S. 12 Pet. 1 1 (1838)
United States v. Laub
37 U.S. (12 Pet.) 1
The United States instituted an action on a Treasury transcript of the accounts of the defendant, who had been a clerk in the Treasury Department, and as such, and as agent under the authority of the Secretary of the Treasury, had disbursed public moneys under several heads of appropriation -- some specific and temporary, others of a more permanent and general character. On the night of 30 March, 1833; the Treasury building was consumed by fire, which destroyed all his books, papers and vouchers relating to the disbursements made by him. During the period in which the defendant had performed the duties of agent, he had settled his accounts with punctuality and to the satisfaction of the accounting officers. All suspicion of fraudulent misapplication of the money was disclaimed by the counsel of the United States in the argument of the cause, and the question before the court was whether the defendant had entitled himself to relief in a court of justice, or must be turned over to legislative aid. Upon the questions of evidence presented in the cause, the court said
"This, then, presents a case, where all the books, papers and vouchers, of the defendant relating to his disbursements and agency have been destroyed by fire without any fault of his, and is of necessity open to the admission of secondary evidence. And under the general rule of evidence, he might be required to produce the best evidence which the nature of the case, under the circumstances, would admit. This rule, however, does not require of a party the production of the strongest possible evidence, but must be governed in a great measure by the circumstances of the case, and must have a bearing upon the matter in controversy, and must not be such as to leave it open to the suspicion or presumption that anything left behind and within the power of the party would, if produced, make against him."
Suppose a debtor should put into the hands of an agent a sum of money for the payment of specified demands against him, and the amount limited to such demands, and to be paid in small sums to a numerous class of creditors scattered over various and distant parts of the country, and it should be made to appear that he had disbursed all the money thus put into his hands, but that the vouchers for such payments had been destroyed by fire without any fault of his, and he could not ascertain the names of the creditors to whom payment had been made, but that no claim had been presented to his principal by any one of the creditors to whom payment was to be made by the agent after the lapse of three years, and all this accompanied by proof that he had faithfully discharged the duties of a like agency for several years and regularly accounted for his disbursements; would it not afford reasonable grounds to conclude that he had disbursed all the moneys placed in his hands by his principal for the purposes for which he received it, and protect him against a suit for any balance?
It appeared that the defendant offered to read in evidence certain passages from a public document mentioned in the bill of exceptions. The plaintiffs' counsel consented to its being read as the defendant's evidence. And after the same was read, the plaintiffs' counsel requested the court to instruct the jury that the conversation of the defendant with Mr. Dickens and Mr. McLean read from the executive document was not evidence to the jury of the facts stated in such conversation, which the court refused to give. The Court said
"The entire document referred to is not set out in the bill of exceptions, and from what is stated, no conversation of the character objected to appears. But the evidence was admitted by consent. The plaintiffs were entitled to have the whole document read, and it was all in evidence before the court and jury. But the objection, on the ground that some of the facts stated were only hearsay evidence, fails. The document, so far as it appears on the bill of exceptions, contains no such conversation. This instruction was therefore properly refused."
The United States instituted two actions of assumpsit against the defendant to recover the balances stated to be due to the United States on transcripts regularly certified by the Treasury Department. The first account was with the defendant, as "agent for paying the contingent expenses of the office of the Secretary of the Treasury," and charges a balance due to the United States, and those warrants drawn by the Secretary of the Treasury in favor of the defendant, amounting, together, to four thousand dollars. It credits a payment of two hundred and forty-one dollars and fifty-eight cents, paid on 22 July, 1833, leaving a balance due to the United States, on 24 November, 1833, of three thousand seven hundred and seventy-six
dollars and fifty-eight cents. The other account is against the defendant as "superintendent of the southeast executive building, in relation to the compensation of superintendent, and watchman of said building," and after charging a warrant of four hundred and twenty-five dollars and crediting one hundred and fourteen dollars and ninety-seven cents, paid July 22d 1833, claims a balance of three hundred and ten dollars and three cents. The whole sum claimed to be due to the United States on the two transcripts was four thousand and eighty-six dollars and fifty-one cents. In the other action, the United States claimed seven thousand seven hundred and sixty-nine dollars and twenty-five cents. This account is for a Treasury warrant for two thousand dollars, and for five thousand seven hundred and sixty-nine dollars and twenty-five cents for balances due by the defendant as "superintendent of the southeast executive building" in relation to contingent expenses of the said building, to alterations and improvements thereof, and to enclosing the grounds attached thereto, and also as "agent for expenditures in relation to insolvent debtors" and in relation to manufactures.
The defendant pleaded nonassumpsit to both actions, and the cases were tried together in the circuit court; the jury found verdicts for the defendant.
Three bills of exception, entirely similar, were taken in each case, by the plaintiffs, and judgment being given for the defendant, the plaintiffs prosecuted this writ of error. The material facts of the case, in the bills of exception, are stated in the opinion of the Court.