STREET v. UNITED STATES

No. 1123.

133 U.S. 299 (1890)

STREET v. UNITED STATES.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided February 3, 1890.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. J.M. Vale for appellant.

Mr. Assistant Attorney General Cotton and Mr. F.P. Dewees for appellees.


MR. JUSTICE BREWER, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

The principal contention of the appellant is that, proceedings having been commenced under section 11, they should have been carried to a close, and that he could be mustered out of the service only upon an adjudication by that board of unfitness. But this view cannot be sustained. It arises from a misconception of the scope of the two sections. The first aims to eliminate from the army those officers who are unfit for the discharge of their duties, and whose unfitness springs from no cause of meritorious claim upon the consideration of the government; while the other is a grant of general power to the President to reduce the number of officers by selecting the best and mustering out the residue. It is comprehensive in its scope, and not at all dependent upon the failure to accomplish the requisite reduction through proceedings under section 11. It is in no manner subordinated to or dependent upon that section, and grants a power which can be exercised irrespective of all other proceedings.

The appellant had no vested right to an adjudication upon the matter reported against him. In the absence of express limitation, the government may always withdraw charges which it has made. There is nothing in the words of either section, nothing in the scope and purpose of their provisions, or in any general rule of law, which prevented the government from abandoning the proceedings initiated under section 11, and proceeding to muster out the appellant under section 12.

The other proposition of the appellant is that the authority given by section 12 was not strictly pursued. While it is conceded that the President might add to or take from the list of supernumerary officers, it is urged that he could muster out only those who were supernumerary officers at the close of the first day of January, 1879, the language being: "And if any supernumerary officers shall remain after the first day of January next they shall be honorably mustered out," etc., whereas, by the order actually made, he was transferred to the supernumerary list only on the second day of January. Concede the irregularity, and it is not such as vitiates the order. The purpose of the act is obvious. The direction of Congress was clear and distinct, and it would be strange if any executive officer could, by irregularity in executing the mandate of Congress, thwart this purpose. The matter of time was not vital. The purpose was reduction, and a reduction to be accomplished by selecting the best and mustering out the poorer element; and while Congress prescribed the time within which this mandate was to be executed, there is neither in terms nor by implication any subordination of the power to the matter of time.

Again, it must be noticed that the first day of January was Sunday, that is, a dies non, and a power that may be exercised up to and including a given day of the month may generally, when that day happens to be Sunday, be exercised on the succeeding day. So that it is a matter worthy at least of consideration whether the power was not exercised within the very limits of time prescribed by the act.

It is well in this respect to compare this section with section 3. By that the President was authorized to honorably discharge, with pay and allowances, officers who should apply on or before January 1, 1871. By that section a reduction through the voluntary act of army officers was contemplated, and such voluntary action was authorized and invited to be had on the first day of January. While section 12 was not dependent upon section 3, yet it is obvious that action so voluntarily taken by any army officer would limit the amount of enforced reduction, and to that extent relieve the President from embarrassment in the selection authorized by section 12; and there was a propriety, if nothing else, in waiting until the close of the first day of January before exercising the power of selection and mustering out.

It will also be noticed that section 12 places no limitation on the time within which the President is authorized to transfer officers to the list of supernumeraries. If voluntary resignation by the close of the first day of January made sufficient reduction, there would be no necessity of transferring any to the list of supernumeraries, and it was only the supernumerary officers remaining after the 1st of January — that is, the officers then found not to be needed for the service — who were to be mustered out under that section. There was, therefore, no requirement that the President should transfer to the supernumerary list before the close of the first of January; the number which it was necessary to transfer could not be absolutely determined until the close of that day, and it was only those who, at the close of that day, were not needed in the service, that the President could muster out. All these matters justified the action of the President taken on the 2d of January, and if they do not establish that it was in full and literal compliance with the exact provisions of section 12, they certainly leave so slight a departure as scarcely to be worthy of mention. It is certainly no such deviation from the prescribed course as to vitiate the order and thus nullify the express direction of Congress.

But we are not limited to this. Full power of legislation in the matter of increase and reduction of the army is with Congress. It prescribed in this act the proceedings by which that reduction was to be accomplished. In pursuance of that act certain proceedings were had. The power which can direct what proceedings shall be had can approve and make valid any proceedings which are actually taken. The power which can give authority to act can ratify any act that is taken, and generally legislative recognition of an act or a corporation validates the act or the corporation, although neither one nor the other may have had full prior legal authority. Comanche County v. Lewis, ante, 198.

There was but one order issued under section 12 for the mustering out of supernumerary officers. In that order were many names besides that of the appellant, and the act of March 3, 1875, 18 Stat. 497, c. 159, § 2, refers to "any person who was mustered out as a supernumerary officer of the army with one year's pay and allowances," under the act of 1870, that we have been considering. Further, on April 8, 1878, 20 Stat. 35, c. 50; 25th of February, 1879, 20 Stat. 321, c. 100; March 3, 1879, 20 Stat. 354, c. 175; and March 3, 1881, 21 Stat. 510, c. 151, acts were severally passed authorizing the restoration to the army of John A. Darling, Michael O'Brien, Philip W. Stanhope and Redmond Tully, who had been mustered out by this order of January 2, 1871, and those acts all assume the validity of that order. There has been thus full legislative recognition of its validity. It is too late, therefore, now to enquire as to whether it was in technical compliance with the procedure prescribed by the act of 1870.

We see no errors in the ruling of the Court of Claims, and its judgment is

Affirmed.


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