Trist v. Child,
88 U.S. 441 (1874)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Trist v. Child, 88 U.S. 21 Wall. 441 441 (1874)

Trist v. Child

88 U.S. (21 Wall.) 441


1. A mere personal agreement by one setting up a claim on the government, with another person to pay to such person a percentage of whatever sum Congress, through the instrumentality of such person, may appropriate in payment of the claim does not constitute any lien on the fund to be appropriated, there being no order on the government to pay the percentage out of the fund so appropriated nor any assignment to the party of such percentage.

2. If such agreement amounted to such an order or assignment as in the case of a debt due by an ordinary person would constitute a lien on the fund, the agreement, in the case of a claim on the government, would, under the Act of February 26, 1853, not do so, for that act declares that all transfers of any part of any claim against the United States,

"or of any interest therein, whether absolute or conditional, shall be absolutely null and void unless executed in the presence of at least two attesting witnesses after the allowance of such claim, the ascertainment of the amount due, and the issuing of a warrant therefor."

3. A contract to take charge of a claim before Congress and prosecute it as an agent and attorney for the claimant (the same amounting to a contract to procure by "lobby services" -- that is to say, by personal solicitation by the agent and others supposed to have personal influence in any way with members of Congress -- the passage of a bill providing for the payment of the claim), is void.

4. Such a contract is distinguishable from one for purely professional services, within which category are included drafting a petition which sets forth the claim, attending to the taping of testimony, collecting facts, preparing arguments, and submitting them either orally or in writing to a committee or other proper authority, with other services of like character intended to reach only the understanding of the persons sought to be influenced.

5. Though compensation can be recovered for these when they stand by themselves, yet when they are blended and confused with those which are forbidden, the whole is a unit and indivisible, and that which is bad destroys the good. Compensation can be recovered for no part.

N. P. Trist having a claim against the United States for his services, rendered in 1848, touching the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo -- a claim which the government had not recognized -- resolved, in 1866-1867 to submit it to Congress and to ask payment of it. And he made an agreement with

Page 88 U. S. 442

Linus Child, of Boston, that Child should take charge of the claim and prosecute it before Congress as his agent and attorney. As a compensation for his services, it was agreed that Child should receive 25 percent of whatever sum Congress might allow in payment of the claim. If nothing was allowed, Child was to receive nothing. His compensation depended wholly upon the contingency of success. Child prepared a petition and presented the claim to Congress. Before final action was taken upon it by that body, Child died. His son and personal representative, L. M. Child, who was his partner when the agreement between him and Trist was entered into and down to the time of his death, continued the prosecution of the claim. By an act of the 20th of April, 1871, Congress appropriated the sum of $14,559 to pay it. The son thereupon applied to Trist for payment of the 25 percent stipulated for in the agreement between Trist and his father. Trist declined to pay. Hereupon Child applied to the Treasury Department to suspend the payment of the money to Trist. Payment was suspended accordingly, and the money was still in the Treasury.

Child, the son, now filed his bill against Trist praying that Trist might be enjoined from withdrawing the $14,559 from the Treasury until he had complied with his agreement about the compensation, and that a decree might pass commanding him to pay to the complainant $5,000, and for general relief.

The defendant answered the bill, asserting, with other defenses going to the merits, that all the services as set forth in their bill were "of such a nature as to give no cause of action in any court either of common law or equity."

The case was heard upon the pleadings and much evidence. A part of the evidence consisted of correspondence between the parties. It tended to prove that the Childs, father and son, had been to see various members of Congress, soliciting their influence in behalf of a bill introduced for the benefit of Mr. Trist, and in several instances obtaining a promise of it. There was no attempt to prove that any kind of bribe had been offered or ever contemplated,

Page 88 U. S. 443

but the following letter, one in the correspondence put in evidence, was referred to as showing the effects of contracts such as the one in this case:



"WASHINGTON, D.C., Feb. 20, 1871"

"MR. TRIST: Everything looks very favorable. I found that my father has spoken to C_____ and B_____, and other members of the House. Mr. B_____ says he will try hard to get it before the House. He has two more chances, or rather 'morning hours,' before Congress adjourns. A_____ will go in for it. D_____ promises to go for it. I have sent your letter and report to Mr. W_____, of Pennsylvania. It may not be reached till next week. Please write to your friends to write immediately to any member of Congress. Every vote tells, and a simple request to a member may secure his vote, he not caring anything about it. Set every man you know at work, even if he knows a page, for a page often gets a vote. The most I fear is indifference."

"Yours &c.,"


The court below decreed,

1st. That Trist should pay to the complainant $3,639, with interest from April 20, 1871.

2d. That until he did so, he should be enjoined from receiving at the Treasury "any of the moneys appropriated to him" by the above act of Congress, of April 20, 1871.

From this decree, the case was brought here.

The good character of the Messrs. Child, father and son, was not denied.

Page 88 U. S. 446

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