United States Court of Claims

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Court of Claims was a federal court that heard claims against the United States government. It was established in 1855, renamed in 1948 to the United States Court of Claims (67 Stat. 226), and abolished in 1982. Then, its jurisdiction was assumed by the newly created United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and United States Claims Court (96 Stat. 25), which was later renamed the Court of Federal Claims.

Before the Court of Claims was established, monetary claims against the federal government were normally submitted through petitions to Congress. By the time of the Court's creation, the workload had become unwieldy so Congress gave the Court jurisdiction to hear all monetary claims based upon a law, a regulation, or a federal government contract.[1] The Court was required to report its findings to Congress and to prepare bills for payments to claimants whose petitions were approved by the Court. Since only Congress was constitutionally empowered to make appropriations, Congress still had to approve the bills and reports, but it usually did so pro forma.

The Court originally had three judges, who were given lifetime appointments. The judges were authorized to appoint commissioners to take depositions and issue subpoenas. The federal government was represented in the Court by a solicitor appointed by the President.

Establishment of Court[edit]

Prior to the establishment of the Court, members of Congress believed that it would be a violation of sovereign immunity and the separation of powers to empower an institution to provide monetary awards from the Treasury.[1] However, over time, the workload related to the assessment of monetary claims became heavier, leading members of Congress to change its interpretation of the Constitution and seek to establish an institution to alleviate the workload.[1]

The Court of Claims was established in 1855 to adjudicate certain claims brought against the United States government by veterans of the Mexican–American War. Initially, the court met at the Willard Hotel, from May to June 1855, when it moved to the US Capitol.[2] There, the court met in the Supreme Court's chamber in the basement of the Capitol until it was given its space to use.[2]

In 1861, Abraham Lincoln in his Annual Message to Congress asked that the court be given the power to issue final judgments. Congress granted the power with the Act of March 3, 1863,[3] and it explicitly allowed the judgments to be appealed to the Supreme Court. However, it also modified the law governing the Court so that its reports and bills were sent to the Department of the Treasury rather than directly to Congress. The moneys to cover these costs were then made a part of the appropriation for the Treasury Department.

The conflict inherent between the two provisions was made manifest when in 1864, the decision in Gordon v. United States was appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court denied that it had jurisdiction because the decisions of the Court of Claims, hence any appeals, were subject to review by an executive department.[4][5] Less than a year later, Congress passed a law removing review of the Court of Claims from the Treasury Department.[6]

Tucker Act[edit]

In 1887, Congress passed the Tucker Act (24 Stat. 505), which further restricted the claims that could be submitted directly to Congress and required the claims instead to be submitted to the Court of Claims. It broadened the court's jurisdiction so that "claims founded upon the Constitution" could be heard. In particular, this meant that monetary claims based on takings under the eminent domain clause of the Fifth Amendment could be brought before the Court of Claims. The Tucker Act also opened the Court to tax refund suits.

Depredations against American shipping committed by the French during the Quasi-War of 1793 to 1800 led to claims against France that were relinquished by the terms of the Treaty of 1800. Since the claims against France were no longer valid, claimants continually petitioned Congress for the relief that had been waived by the treaty. Only on January 20, 1885, a law was passed, 23 Stat. 283, to provide for consideration of the matter before the Court of Claims. The lead case, Gray v. United States, 21 Ct. Cl. 340, written by Judge John Davis, includes a complete discussion of the historical and political circumstances that led to the hostilities between the United States and France and their resolution by treaty. The cases, termed "French Spoliation Claims", continued in the court until 1915.

In 1925, Congress changed the structure of the Court of Claims by authorizing the Court to appoint seven commissioners who were empowered to hear evidence in judicial proceedings and report on findings of fact. The judges of the Court of Claims would then serve as a board of review for the commissioners.

In 1932, Congress reduced the salary of the judges of the Court of Claims as part of the Legislative Appropriation Act of 1932. Thomas Sutler Williams was one of the judges of the Court, and he sued the federal government by claiming that his salary could not be cut because the Constitution had specified that judicial salaries could not be reduced. The Supreme Court ruled on Williams v. United States in 1933, deciding that the Court of Claims was an Article I or legislative court and so Congress had the authority to reduce the salaries of the judges of the Court of Claims.[7]

Beginning in 1948, Congress directed that when directed by the court, the commissioner could make recommendations for conclusions of law (62 Stat. 976). Chief Judge Wilson Cowen made that mandatory under the court rules in 1964.

Elevation to Article III status[edit]

On July 28, 1953, Congress passed a law to convert the Court of Claims into an Article III court and to raise the number of commissioners to 15.[8] In spite of the Congressional statement of the Court's status, when Judge J. Warren Madden was sitting by designation with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, one of the parties asked for the decision to be thrown out on the basis that Madden was not a valid judge in that court. On appeal, the Supreme Court, in Glidden Co. v. Zdanok, held that the Court of Claims was a proper Article III court, and its judges could sit by designation and assignment on other courts.[9] Ironically, the judges could no longer sit on Congressional reference cases because of this change since an independent court could not act in an advisory role to Congress. The solution, enacted by Congress in 1966, was to have the trial judges hear the cases, upon assignment by the chief judge of the trial division.[10]

Two more judges were added to the court in 1966, bringing the total to seven.[11]

Congress terminated the Indian Claims Commission in 1978 and required that any pending cases to be transferred to the Court of Claims. Of the 170 cases so transferred, many were complicated longstanding accounting claims that had been before the Commission for years. One of the most famous of these cases was United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, which ultimately reached the Supreme Court.[12] Aside from its large judgment awarded to the Sioux, the case also featured interesting questions about judicial power and the ability of Congress to waive the Federal government's legal defense of res judicata to allow a claim to be judicially determined.[13]


In 1982, Congress abolished the court, transferring its trial level jurisdiction to the new United States Claims Court, now known as the United States Court of Federal Claims, and its appellate jurisdiction to the equally-new United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. By then, the Court had expanded to have seven judges; they were transferred to the Federal Circuit.[14]

Former judges[edit]

# Judge State Born–died Active service Chief Judge Senior status Appointed by Reason for
1 Isaac Blackford IN 1786–1859 1855–1859 1858–1859 Pierce death
2 John Gilchrist NH 1809–1858 1855–1858 1855–1858 Pierce death
3 George Parker Scarburgh VA 1807–1879 1855–1861[Note 1] Pierce resignation
4 Edward G. Loring MA 1802–1890 1858–1877 1859–1863 Buchanan resignation
5 James Hughes IN 1823–1873 1860–1864 Buchanan resignation
6 Joseph Casey PA 1814–1879 1861–1870[Note 2] 1863–1870 Lincoln
Lincoln (as chief justice)
7 David Wilmot PA 1814–1868 1863–1868 Lincoln death
8 Ebenezer Peck IL 1805–1881 1863–1878 Lincoln resignation
9 Charles C. Nott NY 1827–1916 1865–1905 1896–1905 Lincoln
Cleveland (as chief justice)
10 Samuel Milligan TN 1814–1874 1868–1974 A. Johnson death
11 Charles D. Drake MO 1811–1892 1870–1885 1870–1885 Grant (as chief justice) resignation
12 William Adams Richardson MA 1821–1896 1874–1896 1885–1896 Grant
Arthur (as chief justice)
13 Bancroft Davis NY 1822–1907 1877–1881
14 William H. Hunt LA 1823–1884 1878–1881 Hayes resignation
15 Glenni William Scofield PA 1817–1891 1881–1891 Garfield resignation
16 Lawrence Weldon IL 1829–1905 1883–1905[Note 3] Arthur death
17 John Davis DC 1851–1902 1885–1902 Arthur death
18 Stanton J. Peelle IN 1843–1928 1892–1913 1905–1913 Harrison
T. Roosevelt (as chief justice)
19 Charles Bowen Howry MS 1844–1928 1896–1915[Note 4] Cleveland resignation
20 Francis Marion Wright IL 1844–1917 1903–1905 T. Roosevelt appointment to E.D. Ill.
21 Fenton Whitlock Booth IL 1869–1947 1905–1939 1928–1939 1939–1947 T. Roosevelt
Coolidge (as chief justice)
22 George W. Atkinson WV 1845–1925 1905–1916[Note 5] T. Roosevelt resignation
23 Samuel S. Barney WI 1846–1919 1905–1919 T. Roosevelt retirement
24 Edward Kernan Campbell AL 1858–1938 1913–1928 1913–1928 1928–1938 Wilson (as chief justice) death
25 George Eddy Downey IN 1860–1926 1915–1926[Note 6] Wilson death
26 James Hay VA 1856–1931 1916–1927 1927–1931 Wilson death
27 Samuel Jordan Graham PA 1859–1951 1919–1930 1930–1951 Wilson death
28 J. McKenzie Moss KY 1868–1929 1926–1929 Coolidge death
29 William R. Green IA 1856–1947 1928–1940 1940–1947 Coolidge death
30 Nicholas J. Sinnott OR 1870–1929 1928–1929 Coolidge death
31 Thomas Sutler Williams IL 1872–1940 1929–1940 Hoover death
32 Benjamin Horsley Littleton TN 1889–1966 1929–1958 1958–1966 Hoover death
33 Richard S. Whaley SC 1874–1951 1930–1947 1939–1947 1947–1951 Hoover
F. Roosevelt (as chief justice)
34 Samuel Estill Whitaker TN 1886–1967 1939–1964 1964–1967 F. Roosevelt death
35 John Marvin Jones TX 1882–1976 1940–1964 1947–1964 1964–1976 F. Roosevelt
Truman (as chief justice)
36 J. Warren Madden PA 1890–1972 1941–1961 1961–1972 Truman death
37 George Evan Howell IL 1905–1980 1947–1953 Truman resignation
38 Don Nelson Laramore IN 1906–1989 1954–1972 1972–1982 Eisenhower reassignment to Fed. Cir.
39 James Randall Durfee WI 1897–1977 1960–1972 1972–1977 Eisenhower death
40 Oscar Hirsh Davis NY 1914–1988 1962–1982 Kennedy reassignment to Fed. Cir.
41 Arnold Wilson Cowen MD 1905–1907 1964–1977 1964–1977 1977–1982 L. Johnson (as chief judge) reassignment to Fed. Cir.
43 Linton McGee Collins DC 1902–1972 1964–1972 L. Johnson death
42 Philip Nichols Jr. MA 1907–1990 1966–1982 L. Johnson reassignment to Fed. Cir.
44 Byron George Skelton TX 1905–2004 1966–1977 1977–1982 L. Johnson reassignment to Fed. Cir.
45 Shiro Kashiwa HI 1912–1998 1972–1982 Nixon reassignment to Fed. Cir.
46 Robert Lowe Kunzig PA 1918–1982 1972–1982 Nixon death
47 Marion T. Bennett MD 1914–2000 1972–1982 Nixon reassignment to Fed. Cir.
48 Daniel Mortimer Friedman DC 1916–2011 1978–1982 1978–1982 Carter (as chief judge) reassignment to Fed. Cir.
49 Edward Samuel Smith MD 1919–2001 1978–1982 Carter reassignment to Fed. Cir.
  1. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on January 22, 1856, confirmed by the United States Senate on February 11, 1856, and received commission the same day
  2. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on July 9, 1861, confirmed by the Senate on July 22, 1861, and received commission the same day
  3. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on December 12, 1883, confirmed by the Senate on December 18, 1883, and received commission the same day
  4. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on December 8, 1896, confirmed by the Senate on January 28, 1897, and received commission the same day
  5. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on December 5, 1905, confirmed by the Senate on January 16, 1906, and received commission the same day
  6. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on January 7, 1916, confirmed by the Senate on January 17, 1916, and received commission the same day

Succession of seats[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Dichio, Michael; Strother, Logan; Williams, Ryan J. (2022). ""To Render Prompt Justice": The Origins and Construction of the U.S. Court of Claims". Studies in American Political Development. 36 (2): 120–137. doi:10.1017/S0898588X22000177. ISSN 0898-588X. S2CID 251365077.
  2. ^ a b U.S. Courts, United States Court of Federal Claims: The People's Court.
  3. ^ 12 Stat. 765
  4. ^ Gordon v. United States, 69 U.S. 561 (1864)
  5. ^ see also Gordon v. United States, 117 U.S. 697 (1864).
  6. ^ 14 Stat. 9
  7. ^ Williams v. United States, 289 U.S. 553 (1933)
  8. ^ Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 83–158, 67 Stat. 226
  9. ^ 370 U.S. 530 (1962)
  10. ^ Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 89–681, 80 Stat. 958
  11. ^ Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 89–425, 80 Stat. 139
  12. ^ United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371 (1980)
  13. ^ Lazarus, Edward (1991). Black Hills, White Justice. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016557-X.
  14. ^ Pub. L.Tooltip Public Law (United States) 97–164, 96 Stat. 50



  • Richardson, William Adams (1885). History, Jurisdiction, and Practice of the Court of Claims (United States) (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.
  • Bennett, Marion Tinsley (1976). The United States Court of Claims: A History; Part I: The Judges, 1855–1976. Washington, D.C.: Committee on the Bicentennial of Independence and the Constitution of the Judicial Conference of the United States.
  • Cowen, Wilson; Philip Nichols Jr; Marion T. Bennett (1978). The United States Court of Claims: A History; Part II: Origin, Development, Jurisdiction, 1855–1978. Washington, D.C.: Committee on the Bicentennial of Independence and the Constitution of the Judicial Conference of the United States.