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ROBERT HARRISON AND OTHERS.
[To accompany J. R. No. 47.]
JANUARY 26, 1855.
Mr. F. P. STANTON, from the Committee on the Judiciary, made the
The Committee on the Judiciary, to whom was referred the memorial of
Charles E. Sherman, attorney in fact of Robert Harrison and others, claimants under the 9th article of the Florida treaty, having had the same under consideration, beg leave to report:
The claims in question originate under the treaty of 1819, between the United States and Spain, of which the 9th article in the English version is as follows:
“The United States will cause satisfaction to be made for the injuries, if any, which, by process of law, shall be established to have been suffered by the Spanish officers and individual Spanish inhabitants by the late operations of the American army in Florida."
The Spanish version of this article does not contain the word "late, but reads simply, “by the operations of the American army in Florida.
In pursuance of this article of the treaty, Congress, on the 3d of March, 1823, passed the following law: CAN ACT to carry into effect the ninth article of the treaty concluded between the United States and Spain the twenty-second day of February, one thousand eight hundred and nineteen.
"Sec, 1. That the judges of the superior courts established at St. Augustine and Pensacola, in the Territory of Florida, respectively, shall be, and they are hereby, authorized and directed to receive and adjust all claims arising within their respective jurisdictions, of the inhabitants of said Territory, or their representatives, agreeably to the provisions of the ninth article of the treaty with Spain, by which the said Territory was ceded to the United States.
“Sec. 2. That in all cases in which said judge shall decide in favor of the claimants, the decisions, with the evidence on which they are founded, shall be, by the said judges, reported to the Secretary of the Treasury, who, on being satisfied that the same is just and equitable, within the provisions of the said treaty, shall pay the amount thereof to the person or persons in whose favor the same is adjudged, out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated.” Approved March 3, 1823.
Under this act, Secretary Crawford held that the losses occasioned by General Jackson's entrance into West Florida, in 1814, to expel the British and Indians, being justified by the law of nations, were not within the treaty of 1819; and Secretary Rush, having applied this decision to the losses of 1812 and 1813 in East Florida, Congress, after full deliberation, on the 26th June, 1834, passed the following explanatory act:
"AN ACT for the relief of certain inbabitants of East Florida. "Be it enacted, de., That the Secretary of the Treasury be, and he hereby is, authorized and directed to pay, out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, the amount awarded by the judge of the superior court at St. Augustine, in the Territory of Florida, under the authority of the 161st chapter of the acts of the 17th Congress, approved March 3, 1823, for losses occasioned in East Florida by the troops in the service of the United States, in the years 1812 and 1813, in all cases where the decision of the said judge shall be deemed by the Secretary of the Treasury to be just: Provided, That no award be paid except in the case of those who, at the time of suffering the loss, were actual subjects of the Spanish government: And provided ulso, That no award be paid for depredations committed in East Florida previous to the entrance into that province of the agent or troops of the United States."
“SECTION 2. And be it further enacted, That the judge of the superior court of St. Augustine be, and he hereby is, authorized to receive, examine, and adjudge all cases of claims for losses occasioned by the troops aforesaid, in 1812 and 1813, not heretofore presented to the said judge, or in which the evidence was withheld, in consequence of the decision of the Secretary of the Treasury, that such claims were not provided for by the treaty of February 22d, 1819, between the governments of the United States and Spain: Provided, That such claims be presented to the said judge in the space of one year from the passage of this act: And provided, also, That the authority herein given shall be subject to the restrictions created by the provisos to the preceding section.
It was under this latter act of Congress that the claims now presented were adjudicated by the judge of the Florida court; and among the many cases standing in the same predicament, the committee deem it proper to present one of the awards or decrees as a type of the whole. The following was certified to the Secretary of the Treasury on the 28th November, 1848, by the judge of the court of the United States for the northern district of Florida:
“I do therefore award and adjudge, that the United States pay to the administrator of Reddin Blunt, deceased, the sum of $1,670, together with interest thereon, at the rate of 5 per cent. per annum, from the 10th of May, 1813, to the 26th of June, 1835, in satisfaction of the losses and injuries suffered by the said Reddin Blunt in his lifetime, and in the years 1812 and 1813, by means of the operations of the American troops in those years in East Florida.”
It will be seen, by this example, that in all the cases of injury suffered in 1812 and 1813, the judges deemed it their duty to allow in
terest, at the rate of 5 per cent., being the legal rate of interest in Florida under the Spanish government, from the time of the injury received until the application of the law which authorized reparation to be made, but no longer. And, although the term interest is used, and the calculation of loss made upon that basis, it is apparent from the face of the decree that the allowance is not properly in the nature of interest, but is really a part of the damage, measured only by the rate of interest, as the usual and easiest mode of estimating its value. It is upon this part of the decrees that the whole difficulty, in the present case, arises. The Secretary of the Treasury, believing himself authorized to revise the decrees of the Florida judges, refused to. pay that part of them which is measured by the rate of interest, upon the ground that the usages of the Treasury Department do not authorize the payment of interest upon claims against the government. The present claimants, therefore, having from the beginning protested against the decision of the Secretary, and from time to time presented their demand to the several successive Secretaries of the Treasury, who have all felt themselves bound by the decision of their predecessor, now ask of Congress the payment of that part of the awards which has been withheld from them as being in the nature of interest.
In the various stages of this proceeding before the Executive department of the government, some questions of great interest and importance have been presented and discussed. It has been questioned whether the Florida judges, acting under the laws above quoted, were clothed with judicial authority, and acted in their official capacity as courts, so as to satisfy the terms of the treaty requiring these injuries to be determined "by process of law,” or whether they acted extra-judicially and in the capacity of mere commissioners. Out of these questions arise others of equal magnitude. Are not commissioners officers of the government, and can they be designated by act of Congress, without appointment in the constitutional mode, by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate? If the judges acted officially as courts, could an appeal be given to the Secretary of the Treasury, thus clothing an executive officer with judicial functions? Again: it has been denied, on the one hand, and insisted on the other, that the injuries done by the army in Florida, in the years 1812 and 1813, are embraced in the ninth article of the treaty of 1819; and, upon the determination of this question, it has been supposed the duty of paying interest, or the right to refuse it, will be settled. So, also, it has been a subject of dispute whether, under the laws of 1823 and 1834, the Secretary of the Treasury had authority to pay a part of the awards of the judges, rejecting another part; or whether he was not bound to pay the whole or reject the whole, according to his conviction that the awards were, or were not, respectively, “just and equitable within the provisions of the treaty."
The committee, however, in their investigation of this subject as now presented to Congress, do not deem it important to enter into the discussion of the various questions which arose in the course of its examination by the Treasury Department. It is of little consequence whether the claimants may have had the benefit of the exact tribunal intended by the treaty, provided they receive substantial jus
tice in the final settlement of their claims. The United States assumed the obligation to provide, "by process of law,” for the adjudication and satisfaction of the injuries in question, reserving to themselves the choice of means for performing this obligation. If there be any defect in the proceedings authorized by law to fulfil the stipulations of the ninth article of the treaty, or if the result has been a failure to do substantial justice, either on account of the character of the tribunal erected, or of palpable errors in its judgment, the committee are of opinion that good faith requires the error to be corrected, and the treaty obligation to be fulfilled, to the very letter and extreme of right. If the appeal had been allowed to the Supreme Court of the United States, or to any established tribunal whose decisions are uniform and authoritative, as being guided by established principles, the parties could not perhaps, under any circumstances, have had good cause to complain. But the determination of legal questions by an executive officer, exercising quasi-judicial functions in pursuance of a treaty stipulation which provides for adjudications “ by process of law,” and being authorized thereto by the party alone whose duty it is to pay, certainly cannot claim that undoubted auauthority which would make the decisions final and conclusive under all circumstances. If, therefore, the Secretary of the Treasury has decided wrong, in a material point, the error ought to be corrected ; and this can be done only by an act of Congress.
The matter of dispute between the government and the claimants rests upon a single point of law, which is extremely simple in its essential nature, however much the Secretary of the Treasury may have been embarrassed by “the usages of the department,'' and by the acts of his predecessors. The single question at issue is, not whether the accounting officers of the treasury are authorized to pay interest on claims presented for payment, but whether, in the substantial justice of the cases in question, the damages allowed by the Florida judges, in the form of interest, from 1813 down to the time when Congress provided the first and only opportunity to present them for adjudication and satisfaction, were properly allowed and ought to be assumed and paid by the government.
This committee do not find any reason to doubt that the estimates made by the Florida judges of the amount of injuries done by the American army, are fair and reasonable. Indeed, the fact that the Secretary of the Treasury, after full examination of the testimony and proceedings, ordered the payment of the principal sum, but refused to pay the incidental damages arising from the delay of satisfaction, upon the ground that the usage of the department did not authorize the payment of interest, is a sufficient evidence of the fairness of the awards, and leaves the question already stated to stand upon its own merits as a simple question of law and of right.
The committee do not deem it necessary to inquire how far the usages of the Treasury Department justified the original decision of this question in 1835, nor how far subsequent Secretaries were bound by that act of their predecessor. If the Secretary was embarrassed by existing laws and usages, then Congress certainly did not give the claimants the benefit of a fair tribunal, because the rights of these parties,