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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. 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

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.[1] There, the court met in the Supreme Court's chamber in the basement of the Capitol until it was given its space to use.[1]

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,[2] 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.[3][4] Less than a year later, Congress passed a law removing review of the Court of Claims from the Treasury Department.[5]

Tucker Act

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.[6]

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

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9]

Two more judges were added to the court in 1966, bringing the total to seven.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12]


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.[13]

Former judges

# Judge State Born–died Active service Chief Judge Senior status Appointed by Reason for
Isaac Blackford 1786–1859 1855–1859 1858–1859 Pierce death
 John Gilchrist 1809–1858 1855–1858 1855–1858 Pierce death
George Scarburgh 1807–1879 1855–1861[Note 1] Pierce resignation
Edward G. Loring 1802–1890 1858–1877 1859–1863 Buchanan resignation
James Hughes 1823–1873 1860–1864 Buchanan resignation
Joseph Casey 1814–1879 1861–1863[Note 2] Lincoln elevation to chief justice
Joseph Casey 1814–1879 1863–1870 1863–1870 Lincoln resignation
Ebenezer Peck 1805–1881 1863–1878 Lincoln resignation
David Wilmot 1814–1868 1863–1868 Lincoln death
Charles C. Nott, Sr. 1827–1916 1865–1896 Cleveland elevation to chief justice
Charles C. Nott, Sr. 1827–1916 1896–1905[Note 3] 1896–1905 Cleveland resignation
Samuel Milligan 1814–1874 1868–1974 A. Johnson death
Charles D. Drake 1811–1892 1870–1885 1870–1885 Grant resignation
William Richardson 1821–1896 1874–1885 Grant elevation to chief justice
William Richardson 1821–1896 1885–1896 1885–1896 Arthur death
Bancroft Davis 1822–1907 1877–1881 Hayes resignation
Bancroft Davis 1822–1907 1882–1883 Arthur resignation
William H. Hunt 1823–1884 1878–1881 Hayes resignation
Glenni Scofield 1817–1891 1881–1891 Garfield resignation
Lawrence Weldon 1829–1905 1883–1905[Note 4] Arthur death
John Davis 1851–1902 1885–1902 Arthur death
Stanton J. Peelle 1843–1928 1892–1906 Harrison elevation to chief justice
Stanton J. Peelle 1843–1928 1905–1913 1905–1913 T. Roosevelt resignation
Charles Howry 1844–1928 1896–1915[Note 5] T. Roosevelt resignation
Francis Wright 1844–1917 1903–1905 T. Roosevelt appointment to E.D. Ill.
George W. Atkinson 1845–1925 1905–1916[Note 6] T. Roosevelt resignation
Samuel S. Barney 1846–1919 1905–1919 T. Roosevelt retirement
Fenton Booth 1869–1947 1905–1928 T. Roosevelt elevation to chief justice
Fenton Booth 1869–1947 1928–1939 1928–1939 1939–1947 Coolidge death
Edward Campbell 1858–1938 1913–1928 1913–1928 1928–1938 Coolidge death
George Downey 1860–1926 1915–1926[Note 7] Wilson death
James Hay 1856–1931 1916–1927 1927–1931 Wilson death
Samuel Graham 1859–1951 1919–1930 1930–1951 Wilson death
J. McKenzie Moss 1868–1929 1926–1929 Coolidge death
William R. Green 1856–1947 1928–1940 1940–1947 Coolidge death
Nicholas J. Sinnott 1870–1929 1928–1929 Coolidge death
Benjamin H. Littleton 1889–1966 1929–1958 1958–1966 Hoover death
Thomas S. Williams 1872–1940 1929–1940 Hoover death
Richard S. Whaley 1874–1951 1930–1939 Hoover elevation to chief justice
Richard S. Whaley 1874–1951 1939–1947 1939–1947 1947–1951 F. Roosevelt death
Samuel E. Whitaker 1886–1967 1939–1964 1964–1967 F. Roosevelt death
John M. Jones 1882–1976 1940–1947 F. Roosevelt elevation to chief justice/chief judge
John M. Jones 1882–1976 1947–1948 1964–1976 Truman death
J. Warren Madden 1890–1972 1941–1961 1961–1972 Truman death
George E. Howell 1905–1980 1947–1953 Truman resignation
Don Laramore 1906–1989 1954–1972 1972–1982 Eisenhower reassignment to Fed. Cir.
James R. Durfee 1897–1977 1960–1972 1972–1977 Eisenhower death
Oscar H. Davis 1914–1988 1962–1982 Kennedy reassignment to Fed. Cir.
Linton M. Collins 1902–1972 1964–1972 L. Johnson death
Arnold W. Cowen 1905–1907 1964–1977 1964–1977 1977–1982 L. Johnson reassignment to Fed. Cir.
Phillip Nichols, Jr. 1907–1990 1964–1982 L. Johnson reassignment to Fed. Cir.
Byron G. Skelton 1905–2004 1966–1977 1977–1982 L. Johnson reassignment to Fed. Cir.
Robert L. Kunzig 1918–1982 1972–1982 Nixon death
Marion T. Bennett 1914–2000 1972–1982 Nixon reassignment to Fed. Cir.
Shiro Kashiwa 1912–1998 1972–1982 Nixon reassignment to Fed. Cir.
Daniel M. Friedman 1916–2011 1978–1982 1978–1982 Carter reassignment to Fed. Cir.
Edward S. Smith 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, 1856, confirmed by the Senate on July 22, 1856, and received commission the same day
  3. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on December 8, 1896, confirmed by the Senate on December 15, 1896, and received commission the same day
  4. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on December 12, 1883, confirmed by the Senate on December 18, 1883, and received commission the same day
  5. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on December 8, 1896, confirmed by the Senate on January 28, 1897, and received commission the same day
  6. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on December 5, 1905, confirmed by the Senate on January 16, 1906, and received commission the same day
  7. ^ Recess appointment; formally nominated on January 7, 1916, confirmed by the Senate on January 17, 1916, and received commission the same day

See also


  1. ^ a b U.S. Courts, United States Court of Federal Claims: The People's Court.
  2. ^ 12 Stat. 765
  3. ^ Gordon v. United States, 69 U.S. 561 (1864)
  4. ^ see also Gordon v. United States, 117 U.S. 697 (1864).
  5. ^ 14 Stat. 9
  6. ^ Williams v. United States, 289 U.S. 553 (1933)
  7. ^ Pub.L. 83–158, 67 Stat. 226
  8. ^ 370 U.S. 530 (1962)
  9. ^ Pub.L. 89–681, 80 Stat. 958
  10. ^ Pub.L. 89–425, 80 Stat. 139
  11. ^ United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371 (1980)
  12. ^ Lazarus, Edward (1991). Black Hills, White Justice. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016557-X.
  13. ^ Pub.L. 97–164, 96 Stat. 50




  • "The Constitutional Status of the Court of Claims". Harvard Law Review. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 68, No. 3. 68 (3): 527–535. January 1955. doi:10.2307/1337629. JSTOR 1337629.


This page was last edited on 7 January 2021, at 15:01
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