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Opinion of the Court.
a contrary intent is shown. Beyond and outside the instrument, the surroundings and motives of the actors are more than ever convincing that no such intent existed. If there were an intent to pay to an administrator under bonds in our courts a fund which he was not to treat as assets, and which yet was to be secured by his bond, this was an inconsistent and impossible intent.
It is not denied that an executor in Massachusetts may, under the operation of the statute law, collect, in certain cases, rents for which he will be held liable on his bond, though not strictly assets, nor that he may not collect life insurance moneys belonging to the widow where the contract was with the deceused, nor that he may not be empowered by statute to collect compensation for death for the benefit of next of kin. But it cannot plausibly be claimed that these adininistrators would be liable on their bonds, or that the probate court would have jurisdiction in respect to these amounts unless they were assets. Special legislation would have been requisite in Massachusetts (and probably in every other State where any original sufferer was domiciled), to carry out the intent of gratuity to living next of kin collected by executors and administrators of the original sufferers. Surely, plain terms would have been employed if such an unusual purpose had been entertained.
Mr. William Warner Hoppin for plaintiffs in error in Foote v. Women's Board of Missions, No. 207, submitted on his brief.
Mr. James 11. Webb and Mr. John W. Alling for defendants in error in No. 207.
Mr. Jabez Fox, (with whom was Mr. W. G. Russell on the brief,) Mr. William Gray Brooks and Mr. Harvey D. Hadlock for plaintiffs in error in Brooks v. Codman, No. 284.
Mr. Joseph B. Warner for defendants in error in No. 284.
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.
Opinion of the Court.
The French spoliation claims arose from the depredations of French cruisers upon our commerce and from the judgments of French prize courts, and could have been enforced against France only by our government, either by diplomacy or by war. In the negotiations leading up to the treaty of September 30, 1800, 8 Stat. 178, these claims of individuals were presented by our commissioners to France, who in turn asserted claims as a nation against this government for failure to comply with treaty guaranties and action in contravention of treaty. The sufferers from the French spoliations have constantly contended that, by that treaty as finally agreed on and ratified, all claims for indemnity were mutually renounced, and that, therefore, an obligation to indemnify them rested upon our government.
January 20, 1885, an act of Congress was approved, 23 Stat. c. 25, 253, providing that “such citizens of the United States, or their legal representatives, as had valid claims to indemnity upon the French government arising out of illegal captures, detentions, seizures, condemnations and confiscations prior to the ratification of the convention between the United States and the French Republic concluded on the thirtieth day of September, eighteen hundred, the ratifications of which were exchanged on the thirty-first day of July following,” might apply to the Court of Claims within two years from the passage of the act, and “that the court shall examine and determine the validity and amount of all the claims included within the description above mentioned, together with their present ownership, and, if by assignee, the date of the assignment, with the consideration paid therefor,” and “they shall decide upon the validity of said claims according to the rules of law, municipal and international, and the treaties of the United States applicable to the same, and shall report all such conclusions of fact and law as in their judgment may affect the liability of the United States therefor," and that “such finding and report of the court shall be taken to be merely advisory as to the law and facts found, and shall not conclude either the claimants or Congress; and all claims not finally presented to said court within the period of two years limited by this
Opinion of the Court.
act shall be forever barred; and nothing in this act shall be construed as committing the United States to the payment of any such claim."
Proceeding to advise under this act, the Court of Claims, in many cases, found with regard to claims therein presented that the original sufferers had valid claims to indemnity upon the French government prior to the convention of 1800; that these claims were relinquished to France by the United States government by that treaty in part consideration of the relinquishment of certain national claims of France against the United States; and that this use of the claims raised an obligation under the Constitution to compensate the individual sufferers for their losses. Gray v. United States, 21 C. Cl. 340; Holbrook v. United States, 21 C. Cl. 434; Cushing v. United States, 22 C. Cl. 721.
As to the present ownership of the claims the court in Buchanan v. United States, 24 C. Cl. 74, 81, said:
“ What it has endeavored to do is to ascertain the person in whom the legal title and custody exist; that is to say, the legal representative who in an ordinary suit at law or proceeding in equity would be deemed the proper party to maintain an action for the recovery of similar assets of the original claimants. In the cases of individual owners or underwriters the court has required a present claimant to file his letters of administration and prove to the satisfaction of the court that the decedent whose estate he has administered was the same person who suffered loss through the capture of a vessel.
“In cases of partnership the court has required evidence of survivorship, and has allowed only the administrator of the survivor to prosecute the claim.
“In cases of bankruptcy, it has held, under the decisions of the Supreme Court, that the claim passed to the assignee, and that on his death it passed to his administrator.
“And where the evidence has shown the bankrupt estate to be still unsettled, the court has held the legal title to be still vested in the assignee.
“In cases of incorporated companies no longer in existence,
Opinion of the Court.
the court has required only the decree of a court of competent jurisdiction transferring their rights of action to the hands of a receiver.
“In none of these cases has the court assumed to determine who were the next of kin of a deceased claimant; nor whether there are any; nor in what proportion were the several interests of partnership owners; nor whether creditors or descendants have the superior equity, nor whether the children of a bankrupt are entitled to a residue of his estate; nor whether the receiver of a defunct corporation represents creditors or stockholders. In other words, the court has not assumed to determine what persons are legally or equitably entitled to receive the money which Congress may hereafter appropriate for the discharge of these claims.
“When the validity of a claim against France and the relinquishment thereof by the United States under the second article of the treaty of 1800, and the amount in which the original claimant suffered loss, have been determined and reported, Congress will be in possession of all the facts which this court under its present restricted jurisdiction can possibly furnish. It will then be within the legislative discretion —
“ (1) To ascertain through the proper committees who are the persons who should receive the money; or
“(2) To provide for the ascertainment of that fact by additional legislation; or
“(3) To confide the money to the administrators and receivers who, with the exception of a few still existing corporations, constitute the present claimants, trusting that they and the courts of which they are the officers and agents will distribute the funds among the creditors or next of kin of the original claimants.
“ The decisions in these spoliation cases are not judgments which judicially fix the rights of any person; and the obligations of the government are so far moral and political that they cannot be gauged by the fixed rules of municipal law for the measures of legal damages."
These advisory conclusions having been reported to Congress, the act of March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 862, 897, 908, c. 540,
Opinion of the Court.
was passed making appropriations to pay certain enumerated claims with the following proviso:
“ Provided, That in all cases where the original sufferers were adjudicated bankrupts the awards shall be made on behalf of the next of kin instead of to assignees in bankruptcy, and the awards in the cases of individual claimants shall not be paid until the Court of Claims shall certify to the Secretary of the Treasury that the personal representatives on whose behalf the award is made represent the next of kin, and the courts which granted the administrations, respectively, shall have certified that the legal representatives have given adequate security for the legal disbursement of the awards."
The cases in hand turn upon the construction of this proviso, and while it is not denied that Congress had the power to enact that the next of kin should take irrespective of the legal title to the assets of the estate of the original sufferers, it is important, in arriving at a conclusion as to whether and to what extent that was done, to refer to the view taken by Congress in respect of the ground of the appropriations as indicated by its action.
Notwithstanding repeated attempts at legislation, acts in two instances being defeated by the interposition of a veto, no bill had become a law, during more than eighty years, which recognized an obligation to indemnify, arising from the treaty of 1800, and the history of the controversy shows that there was a difference of opinion as to the effect of that treaty. 2 Whart. Int. Law, $ 248, p. 714; Davis, J., Gray v. United States, supra. Under the act of January 20, 1885, the claims were allowed to be brought before the Court of Claims, but that court was not permitted to go to judgment. The legislative department reserved the final determination in regard to them to itself, and carefully guarded against any committal of the United States to their payment. And by the act of March 3, 1891, payment was only to be made according to the proviso. We think that payments thus prescribed to be made were purposely brought within the category of payments by way of gratuity, payments as of grace and not of right.
In Comegys v. Vasse, 1 Pet. 193, the United States had