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COURT OF CLAIMS.
WILLIAM A. RICHARDSON, LL. D.,
CHIEF JUSTICE OF THE COURT.
GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE.
16331 H C C
HISTORY, JURISDICTION, AND PRACTICE
COURT OF CLAIMS.
Previous to the year eighteen hundred and fifty-four the accumulation of private claims against the Government of the United States presented to Congress for examination and relief had, at various times, engaged the attention of Senators and Representatives. It was seen and acknowledged by them all that it was beyond the power of Congress or its committees to make a thorough investigation of those claims, or to act intelligently upon the large and constantly increasing number of petitions introduced at each session in behalf of persons having claims of various kinds for which they sought relief. Claimants had gone to Congress, and would continue to go there, as a matter of right secured to them by the first article of the amendments to the Constitution of the United States, guaranteeing to the people the privilege to petition the Government for redress of grievances.
It was seriously felt both in and out of Congress that the constitutional guaranty was of little value, and was substantially violated if private claimants against the government were allowed merely the naked right to have their petitions presented, without any further investigation and consideration.
To neglect to hear petitioners, or not to act upon their complaints when heard, was practically the same to them as would be the effect of a law expressly abridging the right of petition in direct and flagrant violation of the Constitution.
The first edition of this article appeared in the March number of the Southern Law Review, A. D. 1882. The history is now brought down to A. D. 1885.
And yet such was the extent of these claims, and the difficulty of reaching the real facts in each case, that few of them were ever acted upon, and many honest creditors of the United States were turned away without a hearing, and others were déterred from presenting their petitions for redress by the difficulties in the way of ever reaching a final determination, while it was occasionally found that, upon hasty consideration or imperfect ex-parte evidence, a claim was allowed and paid which was, to say the least, of doubtful validity.
Committees could not constitute themselves courts for the trial of facts. They had not the time to devote to that kind of investigation, to the interruption or exclusion of their duties to the country on the great national questions which were always pending in Congress. They could not effectively examine the claimants' witnesses to any great extent before themselves, and they were not sufficiently familiar with the matters in controversy to be able to procure witnesses for the Government. Claimants, in fact, presented only ex-parte cases, supported by affidavits and the influence of such friends as they could induce to appear before the committees in open session, or to see the members in private. No counsel appeared to watch and defend the interest of the Government. Committees were, therefore, perplexed beyond measure with this class of business, and most frequently found it more convenient and more safe not to act at all upon those claims which called for much investigation, especially when the amounts involved seemed large. Moreover, when bills for relief in meritorious cases were reported, few of them were acted upon by either House, or, if passed by one, were not brought to a vote in the other House, and so fell at the final adjournment, and if ever revived, had to be begun again before a new Congress and a new committee, and so on year after year and Congress after Congress.
Several plans for relief were from time to time proposed by bills, resolutions, or motions, or were suggested by Senators and Representatives in the course of debate. But no measure was carefully and fully considered until the second session of the Thirty-third Congress, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-four.
On the sixth of December of that year Senator BRODHEAD, of Pennsylvania, in pursuance of previous notice, asked and obtained leave to introduce a bill establishing a commission for the examination and adjustment of private claims, which was
read a first and second time by its title and referred to the Committee on Claims. This was a carefully drawn and wellprepared bill. It had evidently been considered by members of the committee and had their concurrence before its introduction, for it was soon reported back without amendment. When the bill came up for discussion in the Senate, it soon became apparent that the prevailing opinion of members was that something more was needed than a mere commission, with its members appointed for a term of years, or removable at the pleasure of the Executive. It was seen that there would be frequent changes of commissioners with the change of parties or the incoming of new administrations, and that with the constant liability of removal the independence of the commissioners would be greatly weakened and their usefulness much impaired. Besides, men of ability and learning in the law would not give up their position and practice to accept such semijudicial offices, subject to removal at any time. The desire expressed was to have an independent and permanent tribunal, which should pass upon the claims made against the Government with all the formalities, safeguards, and judicial learning which distinguish courts of justice established for the trial of causes between individuals.
Senator HUNTER, of Virginia, suggested some amendments and proposed the appointment of judges with life tenure, instead of commissioners, as the best means of securing that complete independence which it was important to establish, and of obtaining the best men to fill the positions. He said:
"When these safeguards are provided, I think we should establish the most admirable tribunal for doing justice to private claimants, and, at the same time, for throwing proper checks about the Treasury of the United States, that could be established."
After this discussion the bill was referred on the 18th of December, 1854, to a select committee composed of Senators BRODHEAD, of Pennsylvania, JONES, of Tennessee, HUNTER, of Virginia, CLAYTON, of Delaware, and CLAY, of Alabama. On the 20th of December this committee reported a substitute entitled "An act to establish a Court for the investigation of claims against the United States." This bill differed from the former one very little, except in the important feature of establishing a permanent and independent court instead of a commission. The bill thus drawn met the approval of the Senate,