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decided: March 2, 1925.



Taft, Holmes, Van Devanter, Brandeis, Sutherland, Butler, Sanford

Author: Taft

[ 267 U.S. Page 176]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE TAFT delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal under section 250 of the Judicial Code, par. 6, from a judgment of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, affirmed by the Court of Appeals, granting a mandamus compelling the Secretary of the Interior to consider and allow a claim for net losses suffered by Logan Rives, the relator, in producing and preparing to produce manganese at the instance of the Government for war purposes, under section 5 of the Dent Act (March 2, 1919, ch. 94, 40 Stat. 1272).

Relator's petition shows that he incurred losses aggregating $55,204.15, but that the Secretary awarded him only $23,047.36, refusing to allow him, among other items, $9,600 which he had to expend in obtaining a release from a contract to buy land containing manganese, after the land had lost most of its value because of the armistice. The mandamus asked is to compel consideration and allowance of the claim for this particular item.

The Secretary's answer avers that the relator received and accepted the $23,047.36 awarded March, 1920, but

[ 267 U.S. Page 177]

     refused to waive any right to further award under any subsequent legislation which might provide for further payment. The answer further denies that the Secretary refused to consider the claim, but avers that he did so fully and rejected it. The relator demurred to the answer and on that demurrer judgment followed and the writ issued.

Mandamus issues to compel an officer to perform a purely ministerial duty. It can not be used to compel or control a duty in the discharge of which by law he is given discretion. The duty may be discretionary within limits. He can not transgress those limits, and if he does so, he may be controlled by injunction or mandamus to keep within them. The power of the court to intervene, if at all, thus depends upon what statutory discretion he has. Under some statutes, the discretion extends to a final construction by the officer of the statute he is executing. No court in such a case can control by mandamus his interpretation, even if it may think it erroneous. The cases range, therefore, from such wide discretion as that just described to cases where the duty is purely ministerial, where the officer can do only one thing, which on refusal he may be compelled to do. They begin on one side with Kendall v. United States, 12 Peters, 524, in which Congress directed the Postmaster General to make some credit entries in an account found to be just by the Solicitor of the Treasury. This Court held that the duty was ministerial with no discretion and required the Postmaster General to make the entries. On the other side, is Decatur v. Paulding, Secretary of the Navy, 14 Peters, 497. Congress there provided for general naval pensions by general Act, and by resolution of the same day granted a special pension for the widow of Commodore Decatur. She received the pension under the general law and then applied for the special pension, which was refused by the

[ 267 U.S. Page 178]

     Secretary of the Navy, on the ground that she was given an election of one of two funds and she had elected. She sought by mandamus to compel the Secretary, who under the law administered the Naval Pension fund, to allow the special pension. This Court held that Congress intended the Secretary to construe the statutes and to allow the pensions accordingly, and that although the court might, as a matter of legal construction, differ from his conclusion, it could not by mandamus or injunction constrain him in his exercise of his discretion. Between these two early and leading authorities, illustrating the extremes, are decisions in which the discretion is greater than in the Kendall Case and less than in the Decatur Case, and its extent and the scope of judicial action in limiting it depend upon a proper interpretation of the particular statute and the congressional purpose.

The Dent Act was passed by Congress in an effort to do justice and equity to the many persons who could not obtain from the Government compensation for supplies or services furnished or losses incurred in helping the Government during the war, because of a lack of enforceable contracts or equities. As to supplies and services furnished, there was to be a settlement made by the Secretary of War, and if this did not satisfy the claimant, he was given a right under section 2 to sue in the Court of Claims to recover greater compensation. Section 3 gave the Secretary power to settle fairly and equitably claims of foreign governments and their nationals for supplies and services rendered to the American Expeditionary forces whether by contract entered into in accordance with applicable statutory provisions or not. By section 4, the Secretary was given power to protect sub-contractors in his awards.

By section 5, provision was made, not to pay for supplies or services rendered directly to the Government, but to relieve a class of ...

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