Decatur v. Paulding,
39 U.S. 497 (1840)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Decatur v. Paulding, 39 U.S. 14 Pet. 497 497 (1840)

Decatur v. Paulding

39 U.S. (14 Pet.) 497


On 3 March, 1837, Congress passed an act giving to the widow of any officer who had died in the naval service of the United States authority to receive, out of the navy pension fund, half the monthly pay to which the deceased officer would have been entitled under the acts regulating the pay in the navy in force on 1 January, 1835. On the same day, a resolution was adopted by Congress giving to Mrs. Decatur widow of Captain Stephen Decatur, a pension for five years out of the navy pension fund, and in conformity with the act of 30 June, 1834, and the arrearages of the half-pay of a post captain, from the death of Commodore Decatur to the 30 June, 1834, the arrearages to be vested in trust for her by the Secretary of the Treasury. The pension and arrearages, under the Act of 3 March, 1837, were paid to Mrs. Decatur on her application to Mr. Dickerson, the Secretary of the Navy, under a protest by her that by receiving the same she did not prejudice her claim under the resolution of the same date. She applied to the Secretary of the Navy for the pension and arrears under the resolution, which were refused by him. Afterwards, she applied to Mr. Paulding, who succeeded Mr. Dickerson as Secretary of the Navy, for the pension and arrears, which were refused by him. The Circuit Court of the County of Washington, in the District of Columbia, refused to grant a mandamus to the Secretary of the Navy, commanding him to pay the arrears, and to allow the pension under the resolution of March 3, 1837. Held that the judgment of the circuit court was correct.

In the case of Kendall v. United States, 12 Pet. 527, it was decided by the Supreme Court that the Circuit Court of Washington County for the District of Columbia, has the power to issue a mandamus to an officer of the federal government commanding him to do a ministerial act.

In general, the official duties of the head of one of the executive departments, whether imposed by act of Congress or by resolution, are not mere ministerial duties. The head of an executive department of the government in the administration of the various and important concerns of his office, is continually required to exercise judgment and discretion. He must exercise his judgment in expounding the laws and resolutions of Congress, under which he is from time to time required to act. If he doubts, he has a right to call on the Attorney General to assist him with his counsel, and it would be difficult to imagine why a legal adviser was provided by law for the heads of departments, as well as for the President, unless their duties were regarded as executive, in which judgment and discretion were to be exercised.

If a suit should come before the Supreme Court which involved the construction of any of the laws imposing duties on the heads of the executive departments, the Court certainly would not be bound to adopt the construction given by the head of a department. And if it supposed his decision to be wrong, it would, of course, so pronounce their judgment. But the judgment of the Court upon the construction of a law must be given in a case in which it has jurisdiction, and in which it is their duty to interpret the act of Congress, in order to ascertain the rights of the parties in the cause before them. The Court could not entertain an appeal from the decision of one of the secretaries, nor revise his judgment in any case where the law authorized him to exercise his discretion or judgment. Nor can it, by mandamus, act directly upon the officer, or guide and control his judgment or discretion in the matters committed to his care, in the ordinary discharge of his official duties. The interference of the court with the performance of the ordinary duties of the executive departments of the government would be productive of nothing but mischief, and this power was never intended to be given to them.

The principles stated and decided in the case of Kendall v. United States, 12 Pet. 610 and 37 U. S. 614, relative to the exercise of jurisdiction by the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, where the acts of officers of the executive departments of the United States may be inquired into for the purpose of directing a mandamus to such officers, affirmed.

Page 39 U. S. 498

On 3 March, 1837, an act was passed by Congress giving to the widow of any officer who had died in the naval service of the United States, out of the navy pension fund, half the monthly pay to which the deceased officer had been entitled to receive under the laws in force on 1 January, 1835, the half-pay to commence from the death of such officer, the pension so allowed to cease on the intermarriage or death of the widow, &c.

On the same 3 March, 1837, a resolution was passed by Congress, "granting a pension to Susan Decatur, widow of the late Stephen Decatur." The resolution directs that Mrs. Susan Decatur be paid from the navy pension fund a pension for five years, commencing from 30 June, 1834, in conformity with the provisions

"of the act concerning naval pensions and the navy pension fund, passed thirtieth June, eighteen hundred and thirty-four, and that she be allowed from said fund the arrearages of the half-pay of a post captain, from the death of Commodore Decatur to 30 June, eighteen hundred and thirty-four, together with the pension hereby allowed her, and that the arrearage of said pension be invested in the Secretary of the Treasury in trust for the use of the said Susan Decatur, provided that the said pension shall cease on the death or marriage of the said Susan Decatur."

Under the law of March 3, 1837, Mrs. Decatur applied to Mahlon Dickorson, Esq., then Secretary of the Navy, and trustee of the navy pension fund, and received out of the navy pension fund the whole amount of the pension, which, as the widow of Commodore Decatur, she was entitled to by the provisions of the law. This was received by her under a reservation of her rights under the resolution of 3 March, 1837, she at the same time claiming the benefit of that resolution.

Mr. Dickerson, the Secretary of the Navy, referred the question whether Mrs. Decatur was entitled to both pensions, to the Attorney General of the United States, and he decided that she might make her election to receive either pension, but that she was not entitled to both. On the retirement of Mr. Dickerson from the Navy Department, he was succeeded by Mr. Paulding, the defendant in error. In the autumn of 1838, Mrs. Decatur applied to Mr. Paulding, requiring him, as the trustee of the navy pension fund, to pay the sum claimed to be due to her under the resolution of Congress of March 3, 1837, stated in an amended petition filed in the circuit court to be eighteen thousand five hundred and ninety-seven dollars, with interest on the same. It was stated that there were ample funds and money of the navy pension fund to pay the amount claimed.

The Secretary of the Navy refused to comply with this demand, and on 25 November, 1837, Mrs. Decatur applied by petition to the Circuit Court of the County of Washington setting forth all

Page 39 U. S. 499

the circumstances of the case, and asking from the court a writ of mandamus,

"to be directed to the said James K. Paulding, Secretary of the Navy of the United States, commanding him, that he shall fully comply with, obey, and execute the aforesaid resolution of Congress of 3 March, 1837, by paying to your petitioner and to the Secretary of the Treasury, in manner and form as said act or resolution provides, or as your honors shall think proper, the full and entire amount of the aforesaid sum or sums of money, with interest thereon, or such part or portion thereof as your honors may direct."

The circuit court granted a rule on the Secretary of the Navy to show cause why the writ of mandamus, as prayed for, should not be issued, and to this rule the Secretary made the following return:

"To the honorable the judges of the circuit court of the District of Columbia for Washington County."

"The undersigned, James K. Paulding, Secretary of the Navy of the United States, respectfully states: "

"That he hath been served with notice of an order or rule from this honorable court requiring him to show cause why a writ of mandamus should not be issued from the said court, directed to him as Secretary of the Navy of the United States, upon the petition of Mrs. Susan Decatur, commanding him to pay certain sums of money out of the navy pension fund, claimed by said petitioner to be due to her under a certain resolution of Congress referred to in the aforesaid petition."

"The undersigned considers it his duty in the first place to protest against the jurisdiction of the circuit court invoked on this occasion, for the following reasons: "

"1st. Because, as Secretary of the Navy of the United States, he is not subject, in the discharge of the duties of his office by the Constitution and laws of the United States, to the control, supervision, and direction of the said court."

"2d. Because, as such Secretary, he is by law constituted the trustee of the navy pension fund, and it is made his duty, as such, 'to receive applications for pensions, and to grant the same according to the terms of the acts of Congress in such cases provided.' He is also required to cause books to be opened, and regular accounts to be kept, showing the condition of the navy and privateer pension funds, the receipts and expenditures thereof, the names of the pensioners, and the dates and amount of their respective pensions, with a statement of the act or acts of Congress under which the same may be granted, and he shall annually report to Congress an abstract showing the condition of these funds in all these particulars, and the receipts and expenditures during the year, and there is no law authorizing the circuit court of this district to control and direct him in the discharge of these duties."

"3d. Because such jurisdiction in this Court would, if assumed, operate as such an interference with the discharge of the official

Page 39 U. S. 500

duties of the undersigned, as to make it impossible for him to perform them as required and intended, and would transfer to the said court the discharge of the said duties, and the whole management and disposition of the said fund, and subject all applicants for pensions to the delay, expense, and embarrassments of legal controversies as to their rights, and to a suspension of the provisions to which they might be entitled under the laws, till these controversies were judicially decided."

"4th. Because such a jurisdiction in the circuit court would make the United States suable in that court, and subject the money of the United States, in the Treasury of the United States, to be taken therefrom by the judgments of said court."

"5th. Because if the circuit court assumes the jurisdiction of compelling the Secretary of the Navy, or the head of any other department, to revise and reverse the decisions that may have been made by their predecessors in office, these officers will necessarily be taken off from the discharge of their immediate and most urgent public duties, and made to apply their time and attention, and that of their clerks in the departments, in an endless review and reconsideration of antiquated claims and settled questions, to the delay and hindrance of measures of vital importance to the national welfare and safety."

"For these and other reasons, which he trusts will be obvious, on further consideration, to the court, he respectfully objects to the jurisdiction assumed in this case, and will now proceed under such protest to show cause why the mandamus prayed for should not be issued."

"The undersigned was somewhat surprised to see it stated in the petition of the relatrix that"

"he had been often requested by her to pay the two several sums of money stated in the petition, amounting to the aggregate sum of twenty-three thousand four hundred and twenty-two dollars and twenty-five cents,"

"and that he had refused so to do; and, that 'he pretended to say that the petitioner was not entitled to the same, or any part thereof.' The undersigned has no recollection of ever having refused the payment of any sum, or any sums of money demanded in behalf of Mrs. Decatur, except so far as this may have been inferred from his declining to reconsider her claim on grounds which he will now proceed to state."

"Sometime in September, 1838, the undersigned received a communication from the counsel of Mrs. Decatur informing him that they had examined the documents connected with her claims, and the opinion of the late Attorney General, Mr. Butler, upon the strength of which the claim appeared to have been disallowed by his predecessor, and that they were satisfied that the decision which had been made was not warranted by law."

"A reconsideration of the case was then asked of the undersigned, 'if he felt himself at liberty to revise the decision of his predecessor.' And if this could not be complied with, he has then asked "

Page 39 U. S. 501

"to give such instructions to the district Attorney as will enable him to concur with them in bringing the subject before a competent tribunal, in order to obtain a judicial decision upon the case."

"To this application the undersigned replied,"

"that the claim having been examined and decided by his predecessor, in conformity with the opinion of the late Attorney General, he did not feel himself authorized to disturb that decision, as no new facts had been adduced to call for a re-examination."

"And further, that he also declined the second proposition of the counsel"

"being unwilling to give a precedent, which, if once established, will place every executive officer of the government in the attitude of a defendant, in all cases where individuals are dissatisfied with his decisions."

"After this reply, no further application was made to the undersigned, but in February last, a memorial was presented to the President of the United States in behalf of the claimant, by her counsel, in which a reconsideration of the case and his interference were requested, and that"

"if he should be of opinion that the claim was lawful and proper to be allowed, that he would direct the Secretary of the Navy to execute the resolution in favor of the claimant without further delay."

"In this memorial, the opinion of the late Attorney General, and the decision of the late Secretary of the Navy were stated, and it was added that"

"the claim had been recently renewed before the present Secretary of the Navy, and again rejected, not upon a consideration of its merits, but because it had been before acted upon and denied, and no new matter shown upon the new application."

"On this memorial the President decided that 'he did not find in the papers submitted to him, sufficient to justify the interference asked for,' and of this the counsel for the claimant was informed."

"The undersigned has been thus particular, for the purpose of showing distinctly the nature of the application and its refusal. He desires it should be seen that he placed this refusal solely upon the ground that his predecessor had decided it, after a full consideration, and after calling for the official opinion of the Attorney General, and that no new facts were adduced to authorize him to reconsider it, and he desires now that this shall be considered by the court as a distinct ground of objection to the relief now prayed for."

"He presumes that even if the court shall decide that it possesses the jurisdiction claimed, it will not consider that it is bound to exercise it in all cases, and under all circumstances, and that after a claim has been heard and rejected by the officer authorized to decide upon it, it still remains in the power of the claimant to call it up, and compel, a reconsideration of it from every successive officer, who may be subsequently appointed in the place of the officer making the decision. It is obvious, that if such a course is allowed, there can be no such thing as the final decision of a controverted claim."

"The executive officers must always continue to consider it as an

Page 39 U. S. 502

open claim, and the funds of the government as still liable to its demands. Nor is it possible for the affairs of the government to be properly administered if the executive officers, instead of devoting themselves to the discharge of the duties brought before them, and which are abundantly sufficient to occupy all their time and attention, are to be called upon to go back to the times of their predecessors and determine whether they have properly discharged the duties they were required to execute."

"These considerations, and an experience of the impossibility of thus conducting the public business committed to them, have long since obliged all the executive departments, under every administration, with the sanction, as the undersigned believes, of several successive attorneys general to adopt the rule that no claim once fully heard and rejected by the competent officer can be considered open to the review and reconsideration of the successor to such officer unless new matter can be shown to justify such reexamination."

"It is evidently as important to the public interests, if the courts shall be considered as invested with the jurisdiction claimed on this occasion, that they should respect this rule."

"The inconveniences resulting from disregarding it by the courts in the exercise of such a jurisdiction are the same. The same unsettled state of controverted claims, the same uncertainty as to the national funds, kept open to rejected demands, which may interfere with the rights of other claimants and with the public interests, and the same misemployment of the time and attention of the public officers to cases already decided by their predecessors, must continually occur, for although the decision is ultimately made by the court, yet the officer to whom the command is to be directed must examine the case and everything connected with it, so as to present it to the consideration of the court. Indeed, much more of his time and attention may be withdrawn from the immediate duties of his station by his being called to answer before a judicial tribunal on such occasions, and make that defense against the proceedings which he may feel bound to do than by a reconsideration of the claim."

"Under such circumstances it has been heretofore thought necessary by claimants whose demands have been rejected, and who were dissatisfied with such rejection, to make their application to Congress, and where it has been thought reasonable and just by the legislature that their claims should be allowed, acts have passed for their allowance or the accounting officers have been authorized to open and reconsider their claims. And it appears to the undersigned that there would be a peculiar propriety in seeking that mode of redress in relation to the present claim, which arises from the circumstance of there being two legislative enactments of the same date making nearly similar provisions for the claimant, and the question being whether she is entitled to one or both of these"

Page 39 U. S. 503

provisions. The decision of that question by the late Secretary of the Navy, and the opinion of the Attorney General upon which it is founded, are herewith presented to the court.

"The undersigned observes that a specific sum is stated in the petition as being the amount of the pension claimed. He has already stated that no sum was stated in the application made to him. It appears from the amount stated that the petitioner claims not only half the pay to which the deceased was entitled, but half the pay and rations or pay and emoluments."

"This will present to the court, in case it should assume the jurisdiction, and decide in favor of the petitioner, a question under the pension laws as to the construction of the words 'half the pay' and 'half the monthly pay,' in those acts of Congress. The uniform construction of all these laws, in all the departments of the government, has invariably been such as to confine the pension to the pay proper, the expression being in all these acts 'pay,' and not pay and rations or pay and emoluments. The undersigned is not aware that any claimant of a pension has ever before suggested a different construction."

"In conclusion, he admits, in relation to the state of the navy pension fund, that there is at present a sufficient amount to pay the claim of the petitioner if it was now to be paid. What may be its state when the payment may be ordered, if it should be ordered, it will be impossible for him to state, inasmuch as it will depend on the number of applicants whose claims may be made and allowed in the meantime. And he thinks it proper to state that if the payment of the sum stated in the petition shall be commanded by the decision of the court, in consequence of the court's deciding that the pensioners under these acts of Congress are entitled to half-pay and rations, or pay and emoluments, of the deceased officers and seamen, then he apprehends the navy pension fund would be greatly insufficient to pay the present claimant and the other pensioners whose claims have been allowed, but who have only received half the pay proper, exclusive of rations or emoluments. All which he respectfully submits."



"Attorney General's Office, April 11, 1837"

"Sir -- I have had the honor to receive your letter of the 15 ult'o relative to the case of Mrs. Susan Decatur."

"It is assumed in your statement of the case that Mrs. Decatur would be entitled to the pension granted by the act of the 3 ultimo for the equitable administration of the navy pension fund"

"were it not for the doubt created by the passage, on the same day, of the joint resolution for her special benefit. And on these two laws you inquire whether she is entitled under the resolution, or under the act, or under both."

"This case differs from that of Mrs. Perry, referred to in the note of Mrs. Decatur, accompanying your letter, inasmuch as the law

Page 39 U. S. 504

under which Mrs. Perry ultimately obtained her pension was in existence at the time of his death, at which time she was also entitled (although not then aware of the fact) to its benefits. It held in her case that the law granting her an annuity, for such it was called, could not deprive her of the pension given by a preexisting law, and that as Congress was presumed to be acquainted with the laws in force, the legal intendment must be that the annuity was designed as an additional provision; and, consequently, that she was entitled to both."

"After maturely considering the history of the general and special provisions on which the present case depends, I am of opinion that but one pension can be allowed; but if the general provision includes the case of Mrs. Decatur, then I am of opinion she is entitled to take, under that provision, or under the joint resolution, at her election."

"I am, very respectfully, your ob't serv."



"Secretary of the Navy"


"Navy Department, 14 April, 1837"

"Dear Madam -- The Attorney General has given his opinion that in your case but one pension can be allowed; he however thinks that you have your selection to take under the general law, or under the resolution in your particular case, as soon as your pleasure upon this subject shall be known, the warrant for pension shall be made out."

"I am, with great respect and esteem, your ob't h'le s't,"



"Georgetown, D.C."

The circuit court overruled the order to show cause to the Secretary of the Navy, and refused the application of Mrs. Decatur for a mandamus, and this writ of error was prosecuted by her.

Page 39 U. S. 513

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