The question in this case is, whether the United States, as holders of a protested bill of exchange, which has been negotiated in the ordinary course of trade, are entitled to be preferred to the general creditors, where the debtor becomes bankrupt?
The claim to this preference is founded on the 5th section of the act, entitled "an act to provide more effectually "for the settlement of accounts between the "United States, and receivers of public money," vol. 3, p. 423. The section is in these words, "and be it further "enacted that where any revenue officer, or other "person, hereafter becoming indebted to the United States, "by bond or otherwise, shall become insolvent, or where "the estate of any deceased debtor, in the hands of executors "or administrators, shall be insufficient to pay all "the debts due from the deceased, the debt due to the "United States shall be first satisfied; and the priority "hereby established, shall be deemed to extend, as well "to cases in which a debtor, not having sufficient property "to pay all his debts, shall make a voluntary assignment "thereof, or in which the estate and effects of an absconding, "concealed, or absent debtor, shall be attached by "process of law, as to cases in which an act of legal bankruptcy "shall be committed.
That these words, taken in their natural and usual sense, would embrace the case before the court, seems not to be controverted. "Any revenue officer, or other "person, hereafter becoming indebted to the United "States by bond or otherwise," is a description of persons, which, if neither explained nor restricted by other words or circumstances, would comprehend every debtor of the public, however his debt might have been contracted.
It is undoubtedly a well established principle in the exposition of statutes, that every part is to be considered, and the intention of the legislature to be extracted from the whole. It is also true, that where great inconvenience will result from a particular construction, that construction is to be avoided, unless the meaning of the legislature be plain; in which case it must be obeyed.
On the abstract principles which govern courts in construing legislative acts, no difference of opinion can exist. It is only in the application of those principles that the difference discovers itself.
As the enacting clause in this case, would plainly give the United States the preference they claim, it is incumbent on those who oppose that preference, to shew an intent varying from that which the words import. In doing this, the whole act has been critically examined; and it has been contended with great ingenuity, that every part of it demonstrates the legislative mind to have been directed towards a class of debtors, entirely different from those who become so by drawing or indorsing bills, in the ordinary course of business.
The first part which has been resorted to is the title. On the influence which the title ought to have in construing the enacting clauses, much has been said; and yet it is not easy to discern the point of difference between the opposing counsel in this respect. Neither party contends that the title of an act can controul plain words in the body of the statute; and neither denies that, taken with other parts, it may assist in removing ambiguities. Where the intent is plain, nothing is left to construction. Where the mind labours to discover the design of the legislature, it seizes every thing from which aid can be derived; and in such case the title claims a degree of notice, and will have its due share of consideration.
The title of the act is unquestionably limited to "receivers
The counsel for the defendants have also completely succeeded in demonstrating that the four first sections of this act, relate only to particular classes of debtors, among whom the drawer and indorsor of a protested bill of exchange, would not be comprehended. Wherever general words have been used in these sections, they are restrained by the subject to which they relate, and by other words frequently in the same sentence, to particular objects, so as to make it apparent that they were employed by the legislature in a limited sense. Hence it has been argued with great strength of reasoning, that the same restricted interpretation ought to be given to the fifth section likewise.
If the same reason for that interpretation exists; if the words of the act generally, or the particular provisions of this section, afford the same reason for limiting its operation which is afforded with respect to those which precede it, then its operation must be limited to the same objects.
The 5th section relates entirely to the priority claimed by the United States, in the payment of debts.
On the phraseology of this act it has been observed, that there is a circuity of expression, which would not have been used if the intention of the legislature had been to establish its priority in all cases whatever. Instead of saying "any revenue officer or other person hereafter becoming indebted to the United States," the natural mode of expressing such an intent would have been "any person indebted to the United States;" and hence it has been inferred that debtors of a particular description only were in the mind of the legislature.
It is true the mode of expression which has been suggested, is at least as appropriate as that which has been used; but between the two there is no difference of meaning; and it cannot be pretended that the natural sense of words is to be disregarded, because that which they import might have been better, or more directly expressed.
But the great effort on the part of the defendants is to connect the fifth with the four preceding sections; and to prove that as the general words in those sections are restricted to debtors of a particular description, the general words of the 5th section ought also to be restricted to debtors of the same description. On this point lies the stress of the cause.
In the analysis of the foregoing parts of the act, the counsel for the defendants have shewn that the general terms which have been used are uniformly connected with other words in the same section, and frequently in the same sentence, which necessarily restrict them. They have also shewn that the provisions of those parts of the act are of such a nature that the words, taking the natural import of the whole sentence together, plainly form provisions only adapted to a class of cases which those words describe if used in a limited sense.
It may be added that the four first sections of the act are connected with each other, and plainly contain provisions on the same subject. They all relate to the
The first section directs that suits shall be instituted against revenue officers and other persons accountable for public money, and imposes a penalty on delinquents, where a suit shall be commenced and prosecuted to judgment.
The second section directs that certain testimony shall be admitted at the trial of the cause.
The third section prescribes the condition under which a continuance may be granted: — and
The fourth section respects the testimony which may be produced by the defendant. — These are all parts of the same subject; and there is strong reason, independent of the language of the act, to suppose that the provisions respecing them were designed to be co-extensive with each other.
But the fifth section is totally unconnected with those which precede it. Regulations of a suit in court no longer employ the mind of the legislature. The preference of the United States to other creditors, becomes the subject of legislation; and as this subject is unconnected with that which had been disposed of in the foregoing sections, so is the language employed upon it without reference to that which had been previously used. If this language was ambiguous, all the means recommended by the counsel for the defendants would be resorted to in order to remove the ambiguity. But it appears, to the majority of the court, to be too explicit to require the application of those principles which are useful in doubtful cases.
The mischiefs to result from the construction on which the United States insist, have been stated as strong motives for overruling that construction. That the consequences
Of the latter description of inconveniences, are those occasioned by the act in question. It is for the legislature to appreciate them. They are not of such magnitude as to induce an opinion that the legislature could not intend to expose the citizens of the United States to them, when words are used which manifest that intent.
On this subject it is to be remarked, that no lien is created by this law. No bona fide transfer of property in the ordinary course of business is overreached. It is only a priority in payment, which, under different modifications, is a regulation in common use; and this priority is limited to a particular state of things, when the debtor is living; though it takes effect generally if he be dead.
Passing from a consideration of the act itself, and the consequences which flow from it, the counsel on each side have sought to strengthen their construction by other acts in pari materia.
Admitting the opinion, that the act of 1797 was particularly designed to supply the defects of that of 1795, to be correct, it does not seem to follow, that a substantive and independent section, having no connection with the provisions made in 1795, should be restricted by it.
The act of 1795 contains nothing relative to the priority of the United States, and therefore will not explain the 5th section of the act of 1797, which relates exclusively to that subject. But the act of 1797, neither in its title nor its enacting clauses, contains any words of reference to the act of 1795. The words which are supposed to imply this reference are, "to provide more effectually." — But these words have relation to the existing state of the law, on all the subjects to which the act of 1797 relates, not to those alone which are comprehended in the act of 1795. The title of the act of 1795 is also, "for the more effectual recovery of debts," and consequently refers to certain pre-existing laws. The act of 1797, therefore, may be supposed to have in view the act of 1795, when providing for the objects contemplated in that act; but must be supposed to have other acts in view, when providing for objects not contemplated in that act.
As, therefore, the act of 1795 contains nothing respecting the priority of the United States, but is limited to provisions respecting suits in court, the act of 1797 may be considered in connection with that act while on the subject of suits in court; but when on the subject of preference, must be considered in connection with acts which relate to the preference of the United States.
The first act on this subject passed on the 31st of July, 1789, § 21, and gave the United States a preference only in the case of bonds for duties.
On the 2d of May, 1792, vol. 2, p. 78, the priority previously given to the United States is transferred to the sureties on duty bonds who shall themselves pay the debt; and the cases of insolvency, in which this priority is to take place, are explained to comprehend the case of a voluntary assignment, and the attached effects of an absconding, concealed, or absent debtor.
Such was the title of the United States, to a preference in the payment of debts previous to the passage of the act of 1797. It was limited to bonds for the payment of duties on imported goods, and on the tonnage of vessels. An internal revenue had been established, and extensive transactions had taken place; in the course of which, many persons had necessarily become indebted to the United States. But no attempt to give them a preference in the collection of such debts had been made.
This subject is taken up in the 6th section of the act of 1797. The term "revenue officer," which is used in that act, would certainly comprehend any persons employed in the collection of the internal revenue; yet it may be well doubted whether those persons are contemplated in the foregoing sections of the act. They relate to a suit in court, and are perhaps restricted to those receivers of public money who have accounts on the books of the treasury. The head of the department in each state most probably accounts with the treasury, and the sub-collectors account with him.
If this be correct, a class of debtors would be introduced into the 5th section by the term "revenue officer," who are indeed within the title but not within the preceding enacting clauses of the law.
But passing over this term, the succeeding words seem, to the majority of the court, certainly to produce this effect. They are "or other person hereafter becoming "indebted to the United States, by bond or "otherwise," If this section was designed to place
The 5th sec. then would introduce a new class of debtors, and if it does so in any case, the act furnishes no principle which shall restrain the words of that section to every case to which they apply.
Three acts of congress have passed, subsequent to that under particular consideration, which have been supposed to bear upon the case.
The first passed on the 11th of July 1798, and is entitled "an act to regulate and fix the compensation of the "officers employed in collecting the internal revenues of "the United States, and to insure more effectually the settlement "of their accounts." The 13th section of this act (vol. 4, p. 196) refers expressly to the provisions of the act of March 1797, on the subject of suits to be instituted on the bonds given by the officers collecting the internal revenue, and shows conclusively that in the opinion of the legislature the four first sections of that act did not extend to the case of those officers; consequently, if the 5th section extends to them, it introduces a class of debtors distinct from those contemplated in the clauses which respect suits in court. The 15th section of this act takes up the subject which is supposed to be contemplated by the 5th section of the act of 1797, and declares the debt due from these revenue officers to the United States to be a lien on their real estates, and on the real estates of their sureties from the institution of suit thereon. It can scarcely be supposed that the legislature would have given a lien on the real estate without providing for a preference out of the personal estate, especially where there was no real estate, unless that preference was understood to be secured by a previous law.
The same observation applies to a subsequent act of the same session for laying a direct tax. A lien is reserved
The last law which contains any provision on the subject of preference passed on the 2d of March 1799. The 65th section of that act has been considered as repealing the 5th section of the act of 1797, or of manifesting the limited sense in which it is to be understood.
It must be admitted that this section involves the subject in additional perplexity; but it is the opinion of the court, that on fair construction, it can apply only to bonds taken for those duties on imports and tonnage, which are the subject of the act.
From the first law passed on this subject, every act respecting the collection of those duties, had contained a section giving a preference to the United States, in case of the insolvency of the collectors of them.
The act of 1797, if construed as the United States would construe it, would extend to those collectors if there was no other provision in any other act giving a priority to the United States in these cases. As there was such a previous act, it might be supposed that its repeal by a subsequent law, would create a doubt whether the act of 1797 would comprehend the case, and therefore from abundant caution it might be deemed necessary still to retain the section in the new act respecting those duties. The general repealing clause of the act of 1799 cannot be construed to repeal the act of 1797, unless it provides for the cases to which that act extends.
It has also been argued that the bankrupt law itself affords ground for the opinion that the United States do not claim a general preference. (vol. 5, p. 82.) The words of the 62d section of that law apply to debts generally as secured by prior acts. But as that section was not upon the subject of preference, but was merely designed to retain the right of the United States in their existing situation, whatever that situation might be, the question may well be supposed not to have been investigated at that time, and the expressions of the section were probably not considered with a view to any influence they might have on those rights.
Supposing this distinction not to exist, it is contended that this priority of the United States cannot take effect in any case where suit has not been instituted; and in support of this opinion several decisions of the English judges with respect to the prerogative of the crown have been quoted.
To this argument the express words of the act of congress seem to be opposed. The legislature has declared the time when this priority shall have its commencement; and the court think those words conclusive on the point. The cases certainly shew that a bona fide alienation of property before the right of priority attaches will be good, but that does not affect the present case. From the decisions on this subject a very ingenious argument was drawn by the counsel who made this point. The bankrupt law, he says, does not bind the king because he is not named in it; yet it has been adjudged that the effects of a bankrupt are placed beyond the reach of the king by the assignment made under that law, unless they shall have been previously bound. He argues, that according to the understanding of the legislature, as proved by their acts relative to insolvent debtors, and according to the decisions in some of the inferior courts, the bankrupt law would not bind the United States although the 62d section had not been inserted. That section therefore is only an expression of what would be law without it, and consequently is an immaterial section: as the king, though not bound by the bankrupt law, is bound by the assignment made under it; so, he contended, that the United States, though not bound by the law, are bound by the assignment.
But the assignment is made under, and by the direction of the law; and a proviso that nothing contained in the law shall affect the right of preference claimed by the United States is equivalent to a proviso that the assignment shall not affect the right of preference claimed by the United States.
To the general observations made on this subject, it will only be observed, that as the court can never be unmindful of the solemn duty imposed on the judicial department when a claim is supported by an act which conflicts with the constitution, so the court can never be unmindful of its duty to obey laws which are authorised by that instrument.
In the case at bar, the preference claimed by the United States is not prohibited; but it has been truly said that under a constitution conferring specific powers, the power contended for must be granted, or it cannot be exercised.
It is claimed under the authority to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper to carry into execution the powers vested by the constitution in the government of the United States, or in any department or officer thereof.
In construing this clause it would be incorrect and would produce endless difficulties, if the opinion should be maintained that no law was authorised which was not indispensably necessary to give effect to a specified power.
Where various systems might be adopted for that purpose it might be said with respect to each, that it was not necessary because the end might be obtained by other means. Congress must possess the choice of means, and must be empowered to use any means which are in fact conducive to the exercise of a power granted by the constitution.
The government is to pay the debt of the union, and must be authorised to use the means which appear to itself most eligible to effect that object. It has consequently a right to make remittances by bills or otherwise, and to take those precautions which will render the transaction safe.
This claim of priority on the part of the United States
But this is an objection to the constitution itself. The mischief suggested, so far as it can really happen, is the necessary consequence of the supremacy of the laws of the United States on all subjects to which the legislative power of congress extends.
As the opinion given in the court below was that the plaintiffs did not maintain their action on the whole testimony exhibited, it is necessary to examine that testimony.
It appears that the plaintiffs have proceeded on the transcripts from the books of the treasury, under the idea that this suit is maintainable under the act of 1797. The court does not mean to sanction that opinion; but, as no objection was taken to the testimony, it is understood to have been admitted. It is also understood that there is no question to be made respecting notice; but that the existence of the debt is admitted, and the right of the United States to priority of payment is the only real point in the cause.
The majority of this court is of opinion that the United States are entitled to that priority, and therefore the judgment of the circuit court is to be reversed, and the cause to be remanded for further proceedings.
Although I take no part in the decision of this cause, I feel myself justified by the importance of the question in declaring the reasons which induced the circuit court of Pennsylvania to pronounce the opinion which is to be re-examined here.
In any instance where I am so unfortunate as to differ with this court, I cannot fail to doubt the correctness of my own opinion. But if I cannot feel convinced of the
The question is, have the United States a right in all cases whatever to claim a preference of other creditors in the payment of debts. At the circuit court the counsel for the United States disclaimed all idea of founding this right upon prerogative principles, and yet, if I am not greatly mistaken, the doctrine contended for places this right upon ground at least as broad as would have been asserted in an English court.
The whole question must turn upon the construction of acts of congress, and particularly that of the 3d of March 1797. The title of the law is "an act to provide more effectually for the settlement of accounts between the United States and receivers of public money."
The first section describes more specially the persons who are the objects of the law; points out the particular officer whose duty it shall be to institute suits against those public delinquents thus marked out; declares the rate of interest to be recovered upon balances due to the United States, and imposes a forfeiture of commissions on the delinquent.
The 2d section defines the kind of evidence to be admitted on the part of the United States, in the trial of suits in all cases of delinquency.
The 3d section gives to the United States in such actions, a preference of all other suitors in court, by directing the trial of such causes to take place at the return term upon motion, unless the defendant will make oath that he is entitled to credits which have been submitted to the consideration of the accounting officers of the treasury, and rejected.
The 4th section takes up the case of the defendant, and declares under what circumstances he shall be entitled to the benefit of off-sets.
The 6th section is general in its terms, and relates to executions where the defendant or his property is to be found in any district other than that in which the judgment was rendered.
This is a concise view of the different parts of this act, and I shall now examine more particularly the expressions of the 5th section, taken in connection with those which precede it.
The words are "that where any revenue officer or other person hereafter becoming indebted to the United States by bond or otherwise, shall become insolvent, the debt due to the United States shall be first satisfied," &c.
It is conceded that the words "or other person" are broad enough to comprehend every possible case of debts due to the United States, and therefore a literal interpretation is contended for by those who advocate the interest of the United States. On the other side, a limitation of those expressions is said to be more consonant with the obvious meaning of the legislature, which contemplates those debtors only who are accountable for public money.
Where a law is plain and unambiguous, whether it be expressed in general or limited terms, the legislature should be intended to mean what they have plainly expressed, and consequently no room is left for construction. But if, from a view of the whole law, or from other laws in pari materia, the evident intention is different from the literal import of the terms employed to express it in a particular part of the law, that intention should prevail, for that in fact is the will of the legislature.
So if the literal expressions of the law would lead to absurd, unjust or inconvenient consequences, such a construction should be given as to avoid such consequences, if, from the whole purview of the law, and giving effect to the words used, it may fairly be done.
These rules are not merely artificial; they are as clearly founded in plain sense, as they are certainly warranted by the principles of common law.
The subject intended to be legislated upon is sometimes stated in a preamble, sometimes in the title to the law, and is sometimes, I admit, mistated, or not fully stated. The preamble of an act of parliament is said to be a key to the knowledge of it, and to open the intent of the law-makers: and so I say as to the title of a law of congress, which being the deliberate act of those who make the law, is not less to be respected as an expression of their intention, than if it preceded the enacting clause in the form of a preamble. But neither the title or preamble can be resorted to for the purpose of controuling the enacting clauses, except in cases of ambiguity, or where general expressions are used inconsistent or unconnected with the scope and purview of the whole law.
They are to be deemed true, unless contradicted by the enacting clauses, and it is fair in the cases I have stated to argue from them.
Now it is obvious that these expressions may have precisely the same meaning, so as to comprehend the same persons, although the latter may be construed to include persons not within the meaning of the first section. For persons accountable for public money, are also other persons than revenue officers indebted to the United States; and the latter may, by a construction conformable to the other parts of the law, mean persons accountable for public money; and by an intended construction, they may comprehend others, who in no sense of the expressions used, can be said to be accountable for public money.
It is given to be inquired, is the court bound by any known rules of law to give to the words thus used in the 5th section a meaning extensive enough to comprehend persons never contemplated by the title of the law, and most
Shall we violate the manifest intention of the legislature, if we stop short of the point to which we are invited to go in the construction of this section?
To all these questions I think myself warranted in answering in the negative.
As to the first. Do the principles of equity, or of strict justice discriminate between individuals standing in equali jure and claiming debts of equal dignity?
The nature of the debt, may well warrant a discrimination; but not so, if the privilege be merely of a personal nature. The sovereign may in the exercise of his powers secure to himself this exclusive privilege of being preferred to the citizens, but this is no evidence that the claim is sanctioned by the principles of immutable justice. If this right is asserted, individuals must submit; but I do not find it in my conscience to go further in advancement of the claim, than the words of the law fairly interpreted, in relation to the whole law, compel me. But I do not think that congress meant to exercise their power to the extent contended for. First, because in every other section of the law they have declared a different intent; and secondly, because it would not only be productive of the most cruel injustice to individuals, but would tend to destroy more than any other act I can imagine all confidence between man and man. The preference claimed is not only unequal in respect to private citizens, but is of a nature against which the most prudent man cannot guard himself. As to public officers and receivers of public money of all descriptions, they are, or may be known as such; and any person dealing with them, does it at the peril of being postponed to any debts his debtor may owe to the United States, should he become unfortunate. He acts with his eyes open, and has it in his power to calculate the risk he is willing to run.
But if this preference exists in every possible case of contracts between the United States and an individual,
2. Is this broad construction necessary in order to give effect to the expressions of the law? I have endeavoured to shew that all accountable agents are other persons than revenue officers indebted to the United States. The words then "other persons" are satisfied by comprehending all those persons, to whom the first section extends.
3. Is this construction rendered necessary to fulfil the manifest intent of the legislature? So far from it, that to my mind, it is in direct opposition to an intention plainly expressed by all the other parts of the law. To prove this I again refer to the title of the law; to the three first sections, which are in strict conformity with it, and that too by express words; and to the fourth section, which is so plainly a part of the same subject, that it cannot be construed to go farther than those which precede it. Is the fifth section a stranger to the others; unnaturally placed there without having a connection with the other sections?
If this be the case, I have already admitted rules of construction, strong enough to condemn the opinion I hold. But let us examine this point.
The object of the four first sections is to enforce by suit, where necessary, the payment of debts due to the United States from a particular class of debtors. It points out the officer who is to order the suit, declares at what term the cause shall be tried, lays down rules of evidence to be regarded in support of the action, extends to the defendant the benefit of making offsets under certain qualifications, and then most naturally, as I conceive, comes the fifth section, relating to the judgment which the court is to render in case a contest should ensue between the United States and individual creditors on account of inability in the debtor to satisfy the whole. What if an individual creditor should attach the property of the debtor before the United States had taken steps to recover their debt? Or if the debtor should assign away his property, or it should be claimed
Can a section in a law which professes to afford a remedy in a particular case by process of law, be said not to belong to the law, when it leads to the point of a judgment, which is the consummation of the proceedings in the case? I think not; and therefore I cannot acquiesce in the opinion that the 5th section is unconnected with the other parts of the law.
I have before observed that the 4th section is the first which uses general expressions, without reference to those which had before been particularly mentioned; but that when we come to the 5th section the reference is again taken up, with the addition of those words which produce the difficulty of the case.
Now I ask in the first place, what necessity was there for departing from the mode of expression used in the 4th section, which for the first time is general, without particular reference to any of the persons before described. Would it not have been as well in the 5th as in the 4th section, to say "that where any individual becoming "indebted to the United States, shall become "insolvent," &c. What reason can be assigned for the specification of revenue officers, one class of persons mentioned expressly in the 1st section, intended in the 2d and 3d by plain words of reference, and clearly meant in the 4th, when it must be admitted that the words used in the 4th section, or the words "other per sons," in the 5th would have comprehended revenue officers if they were broad enough to include every description of persons indebted to the United States.
But when the law professes in its title to relate to all accountable agents besides revenue officers, and the first section specifies amongst these agents, "revenue officers," we have a rule by which to restrain the sweeping expressions in the 5th section, viz. "or other person accountable, or indebted as aforesaid." This construction renders the law uniform throughout, and consistent with what it professes in every other section.
2d. In confirmation of this construction, the 62d section of the bankrupt law does, in my opinion, deserve attention. If the United States were, at the time that law passed, entitled to a preference in every possible case, by virtue of the general expressions in the law I have just been considering, what necessity was there for limiting the saving of the right of preference to debts due to the United States, "as secured or provided by any law heretofore passed." This mode of expression leads me to conclude that the legislature supposed there were some cases where this preference had not been provided for by law. If not, it would certainly have been sufficient to declare, that the bankrupt law should not extend to or affect the right of preférence to prior satisfaction of debts due the United States.