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UNITED STATES v. ECKFORD.

December 1, 1867

UNITED STATES
v.
ECKFORD.



APPEAL from the Court of Claims, the case being thus: An act of Congress*fn1 of the 3d of March, 1797, § 3, provides that where a suit is instituted against any person indebted to the United States, the court shall, on motion, grant judgment at the return term, unless the defendant shall, in open court, make oath or affirmation that he is equitably entitled to credits which had been, previous to the commencement of the suit, submitted to the consideration of the accounting officers of the treasury and rejected, specifying each particular claim so rejected in the affidavit. The same act provides, § 4, that in such suits no claim for a credit shall be admitted upon trial but such as shall appear to have been submitted to the accounting officers of the treasury for their examination and by them been disallowed, unless it shall appear that the defendant, at the time of trial, is in possession of vouchers, not before in his power to procure, and that he was prevented from exhibiting a claim for such credit at the treasury by absence from the United States, or some unavoidable accident. With this act in force, the United States sued the executors of Eckford, who had been collector of New York, on his official bond, in the District Court for Southern New York. Among other pleas was that of set-off. The jury sustained the plea, and certified that there was due from the United States to the defendants, $20,545. On this verdict a judgment was entered, 'that the United States take nothing by their bill, and that the defendants go thereof without day; and that the said executors are entitled to be paid the said balance so certified,' &c. The claim not being paid, the executors brought suit against the United States in the Court of Claims, and offered the record of the Circuit Court in evidence. It was objected to by the counsel of the United States; but the objection was overruled and the record read, and judgment accordingly. The United States appealed; and, divested of its special form below, the question now here was, whether, when the United States sued a person indebted to it, and a set-off to a greater amount than the claim was pleaded and proved, a judgment could be given against the United States for the excess. By statutes of New York, in case of such pleas, 'if there be found a balance due from the plaintiff in the action to the defendant, judgment shall be rendered to the defendant for the amount.'

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mr. S. E. Lyon, contra, argued that the ruling below was supported by United States v. Wilkins,*fn4 where Story, J., for the court, in construing the act under which the set-off was offered and proved, says:

Mr. E. P. Norton, for the United States, appellant, relied, as concluding all argument, on De Groot v. United States,*fn2 where this court says:

'When the United States is plaintiff in one of the Federal courts, and the defendant has pleaded a set-off, which the acts of Congress have authorized him to rely on, no judgment can be rendered against the government, although it may be judicially ascertained tha on striking a balance of just demands the government is indebted to the defendant in an ascertained amount.'

Reeside v. Walker,*fn3 was cited to a similar effect.

'There being no limitation as to the nature and origin of the CLAIM for a credit which may be set up in a suit, we think it a reasonable construction of the act that it intended to allow the defendant the full benefit at the trial of any credits which may be set up in the suit. . . . The object of the act seems to be to liquidate and adjust all accounts between the parties.'

How does the defendant here have 'the full benefit of any credit he may have,' or how can 'all the accounts between the parties be liquidated and adjusted by the trial,' if the executors may not have judgment for the excess; the law of the State where the cause is tried, permitting it?

The word of the statute–'credits'–is as comprehensive as any that could be used. Any view opposite to this might work great injustice. To a claim on the part of the United States the defendant would be compelled to interpose the whole amount of his credits, and if they exceeded the plaintiff's charges, by a general verdict for the defendant, there would be no means of determining the amount allowed by the jury in reduction, and he thereby destroys his claim upon the government for the balance. Again, suppose the set-off to consist of a single claim or item, incapable of separation or division in its proof or allowance, and it exceeds the plaintiff's demand. To prove any part is to prove the whole. To decide in favor of a portion, must carry with it a determination in favor of the entire claim. Or, suppose the credits to consist of several matters or items, no one of which is equal to the plaintiff's debt, and yet any two are beyond that amount. How, in either of these cases, is the defendant's cause of action to be divided and distinguished?

In United States v. Bank of the Metropolis,*fn5 the jury certified a balance due the defendants from the United States, and the judgment upon the certificate was affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Mr. Justice CLIFFORD delivered the opinion of the court.

Statement of facts shows that the United States, in June, 1839, brought an action of debt in the Circuit Court on the official bond of the collector of the port of New York, against the executors of Henry Eckford, who was one of the sureties in that bond. Purpose of the suit was to recover moneys which the collector had received as such, without having ever accounted for the same as required by law. Defendants interposed various pleas, and among others pleaded that the moneys retained by the collector were received after he was reappointed, and at a time when the testator of the defendants was not a surety. They also pleaded a set-off, claiming that a large sum was due to their testator from the plaintiffs on several accounts, and especially for the occupation of real estate. Verdict of the jury was for the defendants, and the jury certified, as stated in the record, that there was due from the United States to the defendants the sum of twenty thousand five hundred and forty-five dollars and fifty cents. Judgment was accordingly rendered in the Circuit Court that the defendants do go thereof without day, and that the surviving executors were entitled to be paid the balance so certified by the jurors.

Upon these facts the Court of Claims decided: (1) That the Circuit Court had jurisdiction of the subject-matter of the suit, and the set-off pleaded. (2) That the finding of the jury and the determination of the court constituted, in substance and effect, a valid and binding judgment against the United States for the sum cr tified by the jury. (3) That such judgment, as it remains unsatisfied and unrecovered, cannot be impeached in a collateral suit. (4) That the finding of the jury, under the circumstances stated, is conclusive, and is not subject to re-examination in any Federal court by virtue of the seventh amendment to the Constitution. Dissatisfied with the judgment of the court, the United States appealed.

1. Settled rule of law, as universally understood, is that the Judiciary Act does not authorize a suit against the United States in any of the Federal courts. Where a party contracting with the United States is dissatisfied with the course pursued towards him by the officers of the government charged with the fulfilment of the contract, his only remedy, except in the limited class of cases cognizable in the Court of Claims, is by petition to Congress.*fn6

The Supreme Court was created by the Constitution, but the Circuit Courts were created by an act of Congress, and they are not authorized to exercise jurisdiction in any case except where the jurisdiction was conferred by an act of Congress.*fn7

Jurisdiction cannot be exercised by a Circuit Court in a suit against the United States, or against any other party, unless the plaintiff can bring ...


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