10 U. S. 307

U.S. Supreme Court

Durousseau v. United States, 10 U.S. 6 Cranch 307 307 (1810)

Durousseau v. United States

10 U.S. (6 Cranch) 307




The appellate powers of the Supreme Court of the United States, are given by the Constitution, but they are limited and regulated by the Judicial Act and other acts passed by Congress on the subject.

This Court has appellate jurisdiction of decisions in the district courts of Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Orleans, even in causes properly cognizable by the district courts of the United States.

To an action of debt for the penalty of an embargo bond, it is a good plea, under the Act of Congress of 12 March, 1808, s. 3, that the party was prevented from relanding the goods in the United States by unavoidable accident.

This was a suit brought by the United States against clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 308

Durousseau and others upon a bond given in pursuance of the Act of Congress of December 22, 1807, usually called the Embargo Act (Laws U.S. vol. 9, p. 7). The bond bears date 16 May, 1808, and the condition is that the goods therein mentioned should be "relanded in the United States at the port of Charleston or at some other port of the United States, the dangers of the seas excepted."

The proceedings in the court below are according to the forms of the civil law, by petition or libel and answer. The libel is in the nature of an action of debt for the penalty of the bond, and the plea is in the nature of a special plea, stating facts which were supposed to be sufficient evidence that the defendants were prevented by the dangers of the seas from relanding the goods in the United States.

The answer or plea states that the vessel sailed from New Orleans with intent to proceed to the port of Charleston, and that in the due prosecution of her voyage from New Orleans to Charleston, she was,

"on 26 May, 1808, and on divers days from the said 26 May till 1 June then next following, upon the high seas by unavoidable accident by force of the winds and waives, so much injured and endamaged that upon the said 1 June, for the preservation of the said vessel and cargo and the lives of her crew and passengers, it was found necessary to put into the port of Havana to refit the said vessel for her voyage aforesaid, and that the persons administering the government at the said port of Havana, by force of arms, and against the will and consent of these defendants and of the captain and supercargo of the said vessel and all other persons having the charge and direction of the said vessel or cargo whatever, did detain the said vessel and cargo at the said port of Havana and by superior force did prevent the said vessel, with her cargo, from pursuing her said voyage to the port of Charleston aforesaid or from going to any other port of the United States and landing the said cargo therein pursuant to the condition of the said bond, and did also by force so as aforesaid prevent and have

Page 10 U. S. 309

always hitherto prevented the said cargo or any part thereof from being sent in any other manner to the said United States and landed therein pursuant to the condition of the said bond; and these defendants aver that the damages and injuries aforesaid sustained by the said vessel were unavoidable and by force of the winds and waves, and that by reason of the detention and continuation thereof as aforesaid by superior force as aforesaid, they could not at any time heretofore, nor can they yet, land the said goods, wares, and merchandises in the said United States, pursuant to the condition of the said bond in the said petition set forth, by reason whereof, and also by force of the statutes in such case made and provided, these defendants are, as they are advised, discharged from the payment of the said sum of money in the said bond or obligation mentioned, or any part thereof; these defendants therefore pray that a jury may be empanelled to inquire of the facts aforesaid, should they be denied by the United States, and that these defendants may be hence dismissed with their reasonable costs and damages in this behalf most wrongfully expended,"


To this answer the attorney for the United States filed a general demurrer, and the court below, without argument, rendered judgment for the United States, whereupon the defendants sued out their writ of error. clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 312

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court upon the question of jurisdiction as follows:

This is the first of several writs of error to sundry judgments rendered by the Court of the United States for the Territory of Orleans.

The Attorney General having moved to dismiss them because no writ of error lies from this Court to that in any case, or, if in any case, not in such a case as this, the jurisdiction of this Court becomes the first subject for consideration.

The act erecting Louisiana into two territories establishes a district court in the Territory of Orleans consisting of one judge who "shall, in all things, have and exercise the same jurisdiction and powers which are by law given to or may be exercised by the Judge of Kentucky District."

On the part of the United States it is contended that this description of the jurisdiction of the Court of New Orleans does not imply a power of revision in this Court similar to that which might have been exercised over the judgments of the District Court of Kentucky, or if it does that a writ of error could not have been sustained to a judgment rendered by the District Court of Kentucky in such a case as this.

On the part of the plaintiffs it is contended that this Court possesses a constitutional power to revise and correct the judgments of inferior courts, or, if not so, that such a power is implied in the act by which the clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 313

court of Orleans is created, taken in connection with the Judicial Act, and that a writ of error would lie to a judgment rendered by the court for the District of Kentucky in such a case as this.

Every question originating in the Constitution of the United States claims and will receive the most serious consideration of this Court.

The third article of that instrument commences with organizing the Judicial Department. It consists of one Supreme Court and of such inferior courts as Congress shall from time to time ordain and establish. In these courts is vested the judicial power of the United States.

The first clause of the second section enumerates the cases to which that power shall extend.

The second clause of the same section distributes the powers previously described. In some few cases the Supreme Court possesses original jurisdiction. The Constitution then proceeds thus:

"In all the other cases before mentioned, the Supreme Court shall have appellate jurisdiction both as to law and fact, with such exceptions and under such regulations as the Congress shall make."

It is contended that the words of the Constitution vest an appellate jurisdiction in this Court which extends to every case not excepted by Congress, and that if the Court had been created without any express definition or limitation of its powers, a full and complete appellate jurisdiction would have vested in it which must have been exercised in all cases whatever.

The force of this argument is perceived and admitted. Had the Judicial Act created the Supreme Court without defining or limiting its jurisdiction, it must have been considered as possessing all the jurisdiction which the Constitution assigns to it. The legislature would have exercised the power it possessed of creating a Supreme Court as ordained by the Constitution, clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 314

and in omitting to exercise the right of excepting from its constitutional powers would have necessarily left those powers undiminished. The appellate powers of this Court are not given by the Judicial Act. They are given by the Constitution. But they are limited and regulated by the judicial and by such other acts as have been passed on the subject.

When the first legislature of the union proceeded to carry the third article of the Constitution into effect, it must be understood as intending to execute the power they possessed of making exceptions to the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. It has not, indeed, made these exceptions in express terms. It has not declared that the appellate power of the Court shall not extend to certain cases, but it has described affirmatively its jurisdiction, and this affirmative description has been understood to imply a negative on the exercise of such appellate power as is not comprehended within it.

The spirit as well as the letter of a statute must be respected, and where the whole context of the law demonstrates a particular intent in the legislature to effect a certain object, some degree of implication may be called in to aid that intent.

It is upon this principle that the Court implies a legislative exception from its constitutional appellate power in the legislative affirmative description of those powers.

Thus, a writ of error lies to the judgment of a circuit court where the matter in controversy exceeds the value of $2,00. There is no express declaration that it will not lie where the matter in controversy shall be of less value. But the Court considers this affirmative description as manifesting the intent of the legislature to except from its appellate jurisdiction all cases decided in the circuits where the matter in controversy is of less value, and implies negative words.

This restriction, however, being implied by the Court clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 315

and that implication being founded on the manifest intent of the legislature, can be made only where that manifest intent appears. It ought not to be made for the purpose of defeating the intent of the legislature.

Having made these observations on the Constitution, the Court will proceed to consider the acts on which its jurisdiction in the present case depends, and first to inquire whether it could take cognizance of this case had the judgment been rendered by the District Court of Kentucky.

The ninth section of the Judicial Act describes the jurisdiction of the district courts.

The tenth section declares that the District Court of Kentucky, "besides the jurisdiction aforesaid," shall exercise jurisdiction over all other causes, except appeals and writs of error, which are made cognizable in a circuit court, and shall proceed therein in the same manner as a circuit court;

"and writs of error and appeals shall lie from decisions therein to the Supreme Court in the same causes as from a circuit court to the Supreme Court and under the same regulations."

It is contended that this suit, which is an action on a bond conditioned to be void on the relanding of goods within the United States, is one of which the district courts have exclusive jurisdiction, and that a writ of error would not lie to a judgment given in such a case.

This Court does not concur with the Attorney General in the opinion that a circuit court has no original jurisdiction in a case of this description. But it is unnecessary to say anything on this point, because it is deemed clear that a writ of error is given in the case, however this question might be decided.

It would be difficult to conceive an intention in the legislature to discriminate between judgments rendered by the District Court of Kentucky, while exercising the powers of a district court, and those rendered by the same court while exercising circuit powers, when it is clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 316

demonstrated that the legislature makes no distinction in the cases from their nature and character. Causes of which the district courts have exclusive original jurisdiction are carried into the circuit courts, and then become the objects of the appellate jurisdiction of this Court. It would be strange if, in a case where the powers of the two courts are united in one court, from whose judgments an appeal lies, causes of which the district courts have exclusive original jurisdiction should be excepted from the operation of the appellate power. It would require plain words to establish this construction.

But the Court is of opinion that the words import no such meaning. The construction given by the Attorney General to the word "therein," as used in the last instance in the clause of the tenth section, which has been cited, is too restricted. If, by force of this word, appeals were given only in those causes in which the district court acted as a circuit court exercising its original jurisdiction, the legislature would not have added the words, "in the same causes as from a circuit court." This addition, if not an absolute repetition, could only serve to create doubt where no doubt would otherwise exist.

The plain meaning of these words is that wherever the district court decides a cause which, if decided in a circuit court, either in an original suit or on an appeal, would be subject to a writ of error from the Supreme Court, the judgment of the district court shall in like manner be subject to a writ of error.

This construction is, if possible, rendered still more obvious by the subsequent part of the same section, which describes the jurisdiction of the District Court of Maine in the same terms. Apply the restricted interpretation to the word, "therein," in that instance, and the circuit Court of Massachusetts would possess jurisdiction over causes in which the District Court of Maine acted as a circuit court, and not over those in which it acted as a district court, a construction which is certainly not to be tolerated. clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 317

Had this judgment been rendered by the District Court of Kentucky, the jurisdiction of this Court would have been perfectly clear.

The remaining question admits of more doubt.

It is said that the words used in the law creating the Court of Orleans, describe the jurisdiction and powers of that court, not of this, and that they give no express jurisdiction to this Court. Hence it is inferred, with considerable strength of reasoning, that no jurisdiction exists.

If the question depended singly upon the reference made in the law creating the court for the Territory of Orleans to the Court of Kentucky, the correctness of this reasoning would perhaps be conceded. It would be found difficult to maintain the proposition that investing the judge of the Territory of Orleans with the same jurisdiction and powers which were exercised by the judge of Kentucky, imposed upon that jurisdiction the same restrictions arising from the power of a superior court, as were imposed on the Court of Kentucky.

But the question does not depend singly on this reference; it is influenced by other very essential considerations.

Previous to the extension of the circuit system to the western states, district courts were erected in the States of Tennessee and Ohio, and their powers were described in the same terms with those which describe the power of the Court of Orleans. The same reference is made to the District Court of Kentucky. Under these laws, this Court has taken jurisdiction of a cause brought by writ of error from Tennessee. It is true the question was not moved, and consequently still remains open. But can it be conceived to have been the intention of the legislature to except from the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court all the causes decided in the western country except those decided in Kentucky? Can such an intention clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 318

be thought possible? Ought it to be inferred from ambiguous phrases?

The Constitution here becomes all important. The Constitution and the laws are to be construed together. It is to be recollected that the appellate powers of the Supreme Court are defined in the Constitution, subject to such exceptions as Congress may make. Congress has not expressly made any exceptions, but they are implied from the intent manifested by the affirmative description of its powers. It would be repugnant to every principle of sound construction to imply an exception against the intent.

This question does not rest on the same principles as if there had been an express exception to the jurisdiction of this Court and its power in this case was to be implied from the intent of the legislature. The exception is to be implied from the intent, and there is consequently a much more liberal operation to be given to the words by which the courts of the western country have been created.

It is believed to be the true intent of the legislature to place those courts precisely on the footing of the Court of Kentucky in every respect, and to subject their judgments, in the same manner, to the revision of the Supreme Court. Otherwise the Court of Orleans would in fact be a supreme court. It would possess greater and less restricted powers than the Court of Kentucky, which is, in terms, an inferior court.

The question of jurisdiction being decided, it was stated by the counsel that the seven following cases on the docket, viz., the cases of Bera and others, Connelly and others, Castries and others, Gibbs and others, Childs and others, Clay and others, and Keene and others against the United States, all from New Orleans, stood upon the same pleas of unavoidable accident, excepting that in the cases of Bera and others, and Connelly and others, the accident was capture by the British and prevention by superior force from relanding the goods clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 319

in the United States. The bond in Bera's case was dated 21 March, 1808. The condition was the same as in the case of Durousseau. clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 322

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered an opinion to the following effect:

The Court considered many of the points in these cases while it had the case of United States v. Hall and Worth under consideration, and upon the present argument, I understand it to be the unanimous opinion of the Court that the law is for the plaintiffs in error in all these cases. I cannot precisely say what are the grounds of that opinion; I can only state the reasons which have prevailed in my own mind.

It is true, as contended on the part of the United States, that the legislature is competent to declare what evidence shall be received of the facts offered in excuse for a violation of the letter of a statute.

I also agree with the counsel for the United States that the words of the statute "loss by sea or other unavoidable accident" mean loss by sea or loss by other unavoidable accident.

But the question is what sort of loss is meant? It must be such a loss as necessarily prevents the party from complying with the condition of the bond. It is not necessary that it should be an actual destruction of the property, but such a loss only as necessarily prevents the relanding of the goods.

This statute is not like that upon which the prosecution was founded in the case cited from Bunbury. Our statute does not require evidence that the goods have "perished in the sea." It only requires proof of such a loss by an unavoidable accident as prevents the clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 323

relanding of the cargo according to the condition of the bond. When the property is captured and taken away by the superior force of a foreign power so as to prevent the relanding, it is lost within the meaning of the statute by an unavoidable accident, although the owner may have received a compensation for it.


I agree with the Court in the result of the opinion, but not altogether upon the grounds stated by THE CHIEF JUSTICE. If the act in question will admit of two constructions, that should be adopted which is most consonant with the general principles of reason and justice. I cannot suppose that the legislature meant to do an unjust or an unreasonable act. No man can be bound to do impossibilities. The legislature must be understood to mean that the party should be excused by showing the occurrence of such circumstances as rendered it impossible to perform the condition of the bond. To make his liability depend upon the mere point of ultimate loss or gain would be unreasonable in the extreme.


I concur in the reversal of these judgments, but not in the construction which THE CHIEF JUSTICE puts upon the third section of the Act of March, 1808.

If the relanding of the cargo in the United States had been prevented by any unavoidable accident whatever, although the goods themselves were not lost, it would in my opinion have furnished a good defense to this suit.

If the Spanish government had forced a sale of the property and the proceeds had actually come to the hands of the owners, it would have made no difference. Loss by sea is one excuse; unavoidable accident, whether followed by loss, or not, is another. clubjuris

Page 10 U. S. 324

WASHINGTON and TODD, Justices, agreed in opinion with JUDGE LIVINGSTON.

Judgment reversed.