Buck v. Colbath,
Annotate this Case
70 U.S. 334 (1865)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Buck v. Colbath, 70 U.S. 3 Wall. 334 334 (1865)
Buck v. Colbath
70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 334
1. A suit prosecuted in the state courts to the highest court of such state against a marshal of the United States for trespass who defends himself on the ground that the acts complained of were performed by him under a writ of attachment from the proper federal court presents a case for a writ of error under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act
when the final decision of the state courts is against the validity of the authority thus set up by the marshal.
2. The case of Freeman v. Howe, 24 How. 450, an action of replevin decided that property held by the marshal under a writ from the federal court could not be lawfully taken from his possession by any process issuing from a state court, and decided nothing more.
3. The ground of that decision was that the possession of the marshal was the possession of the court, and that pending the litigation, no other court of merely concurrent jurisdiction could be permitted to disturb that possession.
4. An action of trespass for taking goods does not come within the principle of that case, inasmuch as it does not seek to interfere with the possession of the property attached; but it involves the question, not raised in that case, of the extent to which the federal courts will protect their officers in the execution of their processes.
5. With reference to this question, all writs and processes of the courts may be divided into two classes
i. Those which point out specifically the property or thing to be seized.
ii. Those which command the officer to make or levy certain sums of money out of property of a party named.
6. In the first class, the officer has no discretion, but must do precisely what he is commanded. Therefore, if the court had jurisdiction to issue the writ, it is a protection to the officer in all courts.
7. But in the second class the officer must determine for himself whether the property which he proposes to seize under the process, is legally liable to be so taken, and the court can afford him no protection against the consequences of an erroneous exercise of his judgment in that determination. He is liable to suit for injuries growing out of such mistakes in any court of competent jurisdiction.
8. A plea, therefore, which does not deny that the property seized was the property of the plaintiff or aver that it was liable to the writ under which it was seized is bad in any court.
9. The rule that among courts of concurrent jurisdiction that one which first obtains jurisdiction of a case has the exclusive right to decide every question arising in the case is subject to some limitations, and
is confined to suits between the same parties or privies seeking the same relief or remedy and to such questions or propositions as arise ordinarily and properly in the progress of the suit first brought, and does not extend to all matters which may by possibility become involved in it.
Colbath sued Buck in one of the state courts of Minnesota in an action of trespass for taking goods. Buck pleaded in defense that he was Marshal of the United States for the District of Minnesota and that, having in his hands a writ of attachment against certain parties whom he named, he levied
the same upon the goods, for taking which he was now sued by Colbath. But he did not aver that they were the goods of the defendants in the writ of attachment.
On the trial, Colbath made proof of his ownership of the goods, and Buck relied solely on the fact that he was marshal and held the goods under the writ in the attachment suit.
The court refused to instruct the jury that the defense thus set up was a sufficient one, and the plaintiff had a verdict and judgment. This judgment was affirmed on error in the Supreme Court of Minnesota, and the defendant brought the case here under the 25th section of the Judiciary Act -- an act which, as most readers will remember, provides that a final judgment in any suit in the highest court of a state where is drawn in question, "the validity of an authority exercised under the United States and the decision is against its validity" may be reviewed in this Court.