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Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture
EstablishedJanuary 15, 1780
DissolvedJune 21, 1788
LocationVarious locations within the United States
Composition methodSelection by the Continental Congress
Authorized byStatute enacted by the Continental Congress
Appeals toNone available
Number of positions3

The former Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture, established by resolution of the Continental Congress on January 15, 1780,[1] was the first federal court in the United States of America. The court had jurisdiction over cases for the capture of enemy ships and cargo.


During the American Revolution, the United States issued letters of marque and reprisal authorizing private vessels, known as privateers, to capture enemy ships and cargo as prizes.
During the American Revolution, the United States issued letters of marque and reprisal authorizing private vessels, known as privateers, to capture enemy ships and cargo as prizes.

The idea for the Court originated from requests sent by General George Washington during the American Revolution to President of Congress John Hancock,[2][3] but initially resulted in only the establishment of committees within Congress to exercise such jurisdiction.[4][5][6][7] Upon learning of this deviation from his earlier requests, Washington sent another request to Hancock again asking that Congress establish the Court,[8][9] but Congress did not fulfill his request until almost four years later.[1]

Authority for establishment

Although specific express power to establish the Court was granted to Congress in the Articles of Confederation,[10] the Articles of Confederation were not yet fully ratified by all thirteen of the original states when Congress established the Court on January 15, 1780.[11] However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress nonetheless had inherent power at that time to establish the Court.[12]


The Court operated from shortly after its founding in 1780[13] through its final cases in 1787.[14] It officially ceased to exist following ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789[15] that transferred federal judicial power to the newly created U.S. Supreme Court and such other inferior (i.e., lower) federal courts as Congress may establish.[16][17]


Beginning with Massachusetts on November 1, 1775, several of the American colonies (and, later, states) established prize courts to exercise original jurisdiction over all cases (or libels) of captures (or prizes) consisting of enemy ships and cargo.[18] Establishment of such courts was recommended by Congress on November 25, 1775.[7]

On November 25, 1775, Congress also asserted federal appellate jurisdiction over such cases.[7] Following repeated scheduling difficulties when Congress attempted to hear the first appeal,[19][20][21] Congress initially assigned this jurisdiction to various special committees,[22][23][24][25][26][27][28][29] followed by a standing committee on January 30, 1777.[30][31]

Later, on January 15, 1780, Congress established the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture to exercise this jurisdiction as a court of last resort.[32] On May 24, 1780, Congress transferred all remaining appeals pending before committees to the Court and specified that all future appeals were to be filed directly with the Court.[33]

On June 27, 1786, the Court's jurisdiction was again expanded to include rehearings and new trials in certain cases wherever justice so required.[34]

Special jurisdiction was also conferred upon the Court on February 11, 1782 for a capture adjudicated by a prize court in Connecticut[35] and on July 24, 1786 for a capture of the sloop Chester.[36]

Times and locations of sessions

The first session of the Court was required to be held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the earliest opportunity.[32] Subsequent sessions were to be held at other times and locations in the United States as deemed conducive to the public good, but no farther east than Hartford, Connecticut, and no farther south than Williamsburg, Virginia.[32] Congress later specified the time and location for some sessions of the Court, including specific sessions to be held at Hartford, Connecticut; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Richmond, Virginia; and New York, New York.[34][37]


The primary means of initiating an appeal to the Court required a party to first demand an appeal in the trial court within five days after definitive sentence and then file an appeal in and give adequate security to the Court within forty days after demanding an appeal in the trial court.[38] On Sept. 5, 1781, an extension of time for appeal was granted in the case of a capture decided in favor of Patrick Mahon against Roger Kean.[39] Additionally, some appeals filed with Congress and referred to committees were subsequently transferred to the Court.[38][40]

Trial by jury was considered inconsistent with the usage of nations, and, therefore, was not authorized in the Court.[32] However, trial by jury was authorized in some of the state prize courts,[18] where Congress initially recommended it,[7] only to later recommend against it.[41]

In any case before the Court that involved a capture suspected of being collusive, the Court was required to demand sufficient proof to the contrary from the captor and, if the captor failed to meet this burden, the Court was required to award the prize to the state where the original trial was held.[42]


The Court was composed of three judges, but a quorum only required the presence of two judges.[32]

All judges serving on the Court were first required to take the following oath of office administered before the President of Congress:

You do swear [or affirm] that you will well, faithfully and impartially execute the office of one of the judges of the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture, according to the best of your skill and judgment. So help you God.[43]

Initially, the judges received annual salaries for their services with reimbursement for expenses,[32][44] but their compensation was later changed to provide for only fixed daily rates, including time spent traveling on official business of the Court.[45][46][47]

The following individuals were elected by Congress to serve as judges on the Court:

As judges on the Court, George Read had seniority over John Lowell based on the results of an election in Congress held on Dec. 13, 1782.[58]


Surviving records show that a total of fifty-six cases were lodged with and adjudicated or otherwise disposed of by the Court, including eleven cases that were transferred from committees within Congress to the Court.[59]

Although the Court did not generally issue formal written opinions of its decisions, opinions of the Court were nonetheless published in the following cases:[60][61]

  • The Resolution, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 1 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1781).
  • The Resolution, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 19 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1781) (rehearing).
  • The Erstern, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 34 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1782).
  • The Gloucester, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 36 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1782).
  • The Squirrel, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 40 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1783) (authorized sale of ship to avoid deterioration; proceeds from sale remained subject to adjudication).
  • The Speedwell, 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 40 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1784) (reversed condemnation because capture occurred after preliminary articles of peace).
  • Luke v. Hulbert, 2 Dall. *41 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1787) (dismissed) (using star pagination from 1st ed.).
  • The Experiment v. The Chester, 2 Dall. *41 (Ct. App. in Cases of Capture 1787) (dismissed) (using star pagination from 1st ed.).

Custody of records from the Court was first transferred to the U.S. Supreme Court.[62] However, the National Archives now maintains custody of the records.[63][64] Under the terms of 28 USC §6, the Archives treat the court's records "in the manner provided by law for giving copies of the records and proceedings of the Supreme Court," and "such copies shall have the same faith and credit as proceedings of the Supreme Court.[65]

See also


  1. ^ a b Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 15, 1780, in 16 Journals 61-64.
  2. ^ George Washington, Letter to the President of Congress dated Nov. 11, 1775, in 3 The Writings 213–14.
  3. ^ George Washington, Letter to the President of Congress dated Dec. 4, 1775, in 3 The Writings 257–58.
  4. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Nov. 17, 1775, in 3 Journals 357–58.
  5. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Nov. 23, 1775, in 3 Journals 364–65.
  6. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Nov. 24, 1775, in 3 Journals 368-69.
  7. ^ a b c d Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Nov. 25, 1775, in 3 Journals 371–75.
  8. ^ George Washington, Letter to the President of Congress dated Dec. 14, 1775, in 3 The Writings 274.
  9. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Dec. 26, 1775, in 3 Journals 457.
  10. ^ Articles of Confederation art. IX, § 1.
  11. ^ Maryland did not ratify until February 2, 1781; see discussion of ratification by the states in Articles of Confederation.
  12. ^ Penhallow v. Doane's Adm'rs, 3 U.S. 54 passim (1795) (holding throughout a seriatim opinion that Congress had inherent power to establish the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture prior to ratification of the Articles of Confederation).
  13. ^ J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, 131 U.S. app. at xxviii, xxix, and xxxv–xlix (see cases numbered 21, 38, 40, 45, 49, 50, 53, 56, 65 through 68, and 72 adjudicated or otherwise disposed of in 1780).
  14. ^ J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, 131 U.S. app. at xxviii, xxix, and xxxv–xlix (see cases numbered 87, 89, 103, and 109 adjudicated or otherwise disposed of in 1787).
  15. ^ See discussion of ratification by the states in United States Constitution.
  16. ^ U.S. Const. art. III, § 1; see also discussion of Section 1 in Article Three of the United States Constitution.
  17. ^ Penhallow v. Doane's Adm'rs, 3 U.S. 54 (1795), 86 (opinion of Paterson, J.) ("The existence of the Court of Appeals [in Cases of Capture] terminated with the old government [of the United States of America] . . . .").
  18. ^ a b J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, in 131 U.S. app. at xx–xxii.
  19. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Aug. 5, 1776, in 5 Journals 631.
  20. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Aug. 12, 1776, in 5 Journals 647.
  21. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Aug. 26, 1776, in 5 Journals 702.
  22. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Sept. 9, 1776, in 5 Journals 747.
  23. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Sept. 30, 1776, in 5 Journals 835.
  24. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Oct. 17, 1776, in 6 Journals 884–85.
  25. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Nov. 7, 1776, in 6 Journals 931–32.
  26. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Nov. 27, 1776, in 6 Journals 985–86.
  27. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Dec. 31, 1776, in 6 Journals 1060.
  28. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 4, 1777, in 7 Journals 13.
  29. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 11, 1777, in 7 Journals 30.
  30. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 30, 1777, in 7 Journals 75.
  31. ^ J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, in 131 U.S. app. at xxiii–xxv and xxxv–xlix (see cases numbered 1 through 64).
  32. ^ a b c d e f Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 15, 1780, in 16 Journals 61.
  33. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from May 24, 1780, in 17 Journals 457–59.
  34. ^ a b Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from June 27, 1786, in 30 Journals 355–56.
  35. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Feb. 11, 1782, in 22 Journals 72.
  36. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from July 24, 1786, in 30 Journals 423–24.
  37. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 29, 1783, in 24 Journals 98.
  38. ^ a b Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from May 24, 1780, in 17 Journals 459.
  39. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Sept. 5, 1781, in 21 Journals 935–36.
  40. ^ J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, in 131 U.S. app. at xxxiv-xlix (see cases numbered 3, 18, 21, 30, 38, 40, 45, 49, 50, 53, and 56).
  41. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 15, 1780, in 16 Journals 62.
  42. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from July 17, 1782, in 22 Journals 392–93.
  43. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from May 24, 1780, in 17 Journals 458.
  44. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Sept. 13, 1780, in 18 Journals at 822.
  45. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from July 1, 1785, in 29 Journals 493.
  46. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Feb. 9, 1786, in 30 Journals 60-61.
  47. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from May 19, 1786, in 30 Journals 291.
  48. ^ a b c Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Jan. 22, 1780, in 16 Journals 79.
  49. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Feb. 9, 1780, in 16 Journals 143.
  50. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Nov. 21, 1782, in 23 Journals 746.
  51. ^ a b Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from May 4, 1780, in 16 Journals 411.
  52. ^ J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, in 131 U.S. app. at xxvi.
  53. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from March 13, 1780, in 16 Journals 254.
  54. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from April 28, 1780, in 16 Journals 397.
  55. ^ a b Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Dec. 5, 1782, in 23 Journals 765.
  56. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Dec. 19, 1782, in 23 Journals 821.
  57. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from March 17, 1783, in 24 Journals 186.
  58. ^ Cont'l Cong., Journal and Records from Dec. 13, 1782, in 23 Journals 797.
  59. ^ J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, in 131 U.S. app. at xxxiv–xlix (see cases numbered 3, 18, 21, 30, 38, 40, 45, 49, 50, 53, 56, and 65 through 109).
  60. ^ J.C. Bancroft Davis, Federal Courts, in 131 U.S. app. at xxxv.
  61. ^ 2 Dall. *1–41 (using star pagination from 1st ed.).
  62. ^ Act of May 8, 1792, ch. 36, § 12, 1 Stat. 275, 279 (transferring custody of records from the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture to the U.S. Supreme Court).
  63. ^ Act of June 19, 1934, Pub. L. No. 73-432, 48 Stat. 1122 (establishing the National Archives).
  64. ^ Revolutionary War Prize Cases (available at the National Archives as Microform Publication M162).
  65. ^ 28 United States Code §6 Records of former court of appeals


Further reading

This page was last edited on 9 April 2021, at 13:46
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