Reeside v. Walker,
52 U.S. 272 (1850)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Reeside v. Walker, 52 U.S. 11 How. 272 272 (1850)

Reeside v. Walker

52 U.S. (11 How.) 272


According to the practice in Pennsylvania, where a defendant pleads setoff, the jury are allowed to find in their verdict the amount that the plaintiff is indebted to the defendant, and according to their mode of keeping records this result is entered by way of note, e.g. "new trial refused and judgment on the verdict"

Although this may be a good record in the courts of Pennsylvania, it does not follow that it is so in the courts of the United States.

The effect of such a judgment, that the plaintiff is indebted to the defendant, is merely to lay the foundation for a scire facias to try this new cause of action.

Where the United States were the plaintiffs, and a verdict was rendered that they were indebted to the defendant, and an application was made for a mandamus to compel the Secretary of the Treasury to credit the defendant upon the books of the Treasury with the amount of the verdict, and to pay the same, the mandamus was properly refused by the circuit court. For a mandamus will only lie against a ministerial officer to do some ministerial act where the laws require him to do it and he improperly refuses to do so.

Besides, there was no appropriation made by law, and no officer of the government can pay a debt due by the United States without an appropriation by Congress.

To sanction a judgment under a plea of setoff would virtually be allowing the United States to be sued, which the laws do not allow.

James Reeside, in his lifetime, was one of the contractors with the Post Office department for the transportation of the mail, and claimed sundry extra allowances, which were not allowed

Page 52 U. S. 273

by the department. In consequence, thereof, a dispute arose between the parties, and in October, 1839, the United States brought an action in the Circuit Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania against Reeside, for the sum of $32,709.62, which they claimed to have overpaid him.

The whole history of this suit is summed up in the following transcript of the record:

"In the circuit court of the United States, in and for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, in the Third circuit, October Session, 1839."


"Summons case. -- Real debt $32,709.62, as per statement of account from Auditor Post Office Department, as late mail contractor. Exit 5 Sept. 1837."

"1837, Oct. 11. -- Returned, 'Served.'"

"1840, January 25. -- Interrogatories filed and ruled for comm'n e.p. defendant to Bedford, Pennsylvania, sec.reg."

"1840, February 4. -- Rule on plaintiffs to declare, sec.reg.; 18 interrogatories filed and rule for comm'n e.p. defendants to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, sec.reg."

"1840, March 2. -- Narr. filed; 6th, defendant pleads payment; replication non solvit, and issues and rule for trial by special jury and ca."

"1841, March 2. -- Agreement for taking the deposition of Richard M. Johnson a witness for defendant at the City of Washington, on forty-eight hours' notice to the Auditor Post Office department, filed."

"1841, August 4. -- Agreement taking deposition of R. M. Johnson at Frankfort, Kentucky; and interrogatories filed; deposition of R. M. Johnson filed."

"1841, October 22. -- Defendant pleads nonassumpsit and setoff and issues and ca.; and now [a] jury being called, come, to-wit, Edward C. Biddle, S. M. Loyd, Thomas Connell, George McLeod, Michael F. Groves, John C. Martin William C. Hancock, Joseph Harrison, Jr., Joseph Parker, William Parker, William Gibson, and Thomas Cook, who are respectively sworn or affirmed &c.; deposition of Pishey Thompson filed."

"1841, December 6. -- And now the jurors aforesaid, on their oaths and affirmations aforesaid, respectively do say, that they find for the defendant, and certify that the plaintiffs are indebted to the defendant in the sum of $188,496.06; judgment nisi. On motion of Messrs. Read & Cadwallader, for plaintiffs, for a rule to show cause why a new trial should not be granted, and for leave to move for such new trial, on exceptions to the ruling of the court on questions of evidence and matters of

Page 52 U. S. 274

law, embraced in the charge of the court, without such motion being deemed a waiver thereof, the motion is received; notice thereof to be given to the opposite counsel; returnable 1st Monday in January next."

"1841, December 9. -- Reasons for a new trial filed."

"1842, May 12. -- Motion for new trial overruled; new trial refused, and judgment on the verdict; copy of assignment, James Reeside to John Grey; and copy of notice, James Reeside to Postmaster General, filed."

"1842, July 27. -- Praecipe for writ of error filed."

"UNITED STATES, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, sct."

"I certify the foregoing to be a true and faithful transcript of the docket entries in the above-named suit."

"In testimony whereof, I have hereunto subscribed my name and affixed the seal of said court at Philadelphia, this 4th day of January, A.D. 1847, and in the seventy-first year of the independence of the said United States."


In September, 1842, James Reeside died, and Mary Reeside, his widow, became his executrix.

On 4 November, 1848, Mary Reeside filed a petition in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Columbia, in and for County of Washington. The petition stated the above facts, and with it was filed the transcript of the record as it has been set forth. It concluded as follows:

"Wherefore, your petitioner does respectfully pray that your honors, the premises considered, will award the United States writ of mandamus to be directed to the said Robert J. Walker, Secretary of the Treasury Department of the United States, commanding him -- "

"First. That he shall enter or cause to be entered upon the books of the Treasury Department of the United States, under date of May 12, 1842, a credit to the said James Reeside of the sum of $188,496.06."

"Second. That he shall pay to your petitioner, as executrix as aforesaid, the said sum, with interest thereon from the said 12th day of May, 1842."

"And your petitioner shall ever pray &c."


The circuit court ordered that the motion for a mandamus be overruled, and the prayer of the petitioner rejected. Whereupon Mary Reeside sued out a writ of error, and brought the case up to this Court.

Page 52 U. S. 287

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