United States Court of Claims

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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[edit]

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 Willard's 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[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.[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[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.[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]


Following is a list of judges who have served on the United States Court of Claims up to the merger of the Court into the Federal Circuit.

Judge Began active
Ended active
Appointed by
Isaac Newton Blackford 1855 1859 Franklin Pierce
John James Gilchrist 1855 1858 Franklin Pierce
George Parker Scarburgh 1855 1861 Franklin Pierce
Edward G. Loring 1858 1877 James Buchanan
James Hughes 1860 1864 James Buchanan
Joseph Casey 1861 1870 Abraham Lincoln
Ebenezer Peck 1863 1878 Abraham Lincoln
David Wilmot 1863 1868 Abraham Lincoln
Charles Cooper Nott, Sr. 1865 1916 Abraham Lincoln
Samuel Milligan 1868 1874 Andrew Johnson
Charles Daniel Drake 1870 1885 Ulysses Grant
William Adams Richardson 1874 1896 Ulysses Grant
John Chandler Bancroft Davis 1877
Rutherford B. Hayes
Chester A. Arthur
William H. Hunt 1878 1881 Rutherford B. Hayes
Glenni William Scofield 1881 1891 James A. Garfield
Lawrence Weldon 1883 1905 Chester A. Arthur
John Davis 1885 1902 Chester A. Arthur
Stanton Judkins Peelle 1892 1913 Benjamin Harrison
Charles Bowen Howry 1897 1928 Grover Cleveland
Francis Marion Wright 1903 1905 Theodore Roosevelt
George Wesley Atkinson 1905 1916 Theodore Roosevelt
Samuel Stebbins Barney 1905 1919 Theodore Roosevelt
Fenton Whitlock Booth 1905 1947 Theodore Roosevelt
Edward Kernan Campbell 1913 1938 Woodrow Wilson
George Eddy Downey 1915 1926 Woodrow Wilson
James Hay 1916 1931 Woodrow Wilson
Samuel Jordan Graham 1919 1951 Woodrow Wilson
John McKenzie Moss 1926 1929 Calvin Coolidge
William Raymond Green 1928 1947 Calvin Coolidge
Nicholas John Sinnott 1928 1929 Calvin Coolidge
Benjamin Horsley Littleton 1929 1966 Herbert Hoover
Thomas Sutler Williams 1929 1940 Herbert Hoover
Richard Smith Whaley 1930 1951 Herbert Hoover
Samuel Estill Whitaker 1939 1967 Franklin D. Roosevelt
John Marvin Jones 1940 1947 Franklin D. Roosevelt
J. Warren Madden 1941 1972 Franklin D. Roosevelt
George Evan Howell 1947 1953 Harry S. Truman
Don Nelson Laramore 1954 1982 Dwight Eisenhower
James Randall Durfee 1960 1977 Dwight Eisenhower
Oscar Hirsh Davis 1962 1982 John F. Kennedy
Linton McGee Collins 1964 1972 Lyndon B. Johnson
Arnold Wilson Cowen 1964 1982 Lyndon B. Johnson
Philip Nichols Jr. 1966 1982 Lyndon B. Johnson
Byron George Skelton 1966 1982 Lyndon B. Johnson
Robert Lowe Kunzig 1971 1982 Richard Nixon
Marion Tinsley Bennett 1972 1982 Richard Nixon
Shiro Kashiwa 1972 1982 Richard Nixon
Daniel Mortimer Friedman 1978 1982 Jimmy Carter
Edward Samuel Smith 1978 1982 Jimmy Carter

See also[edit]


  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



  • 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.


  • "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.