MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.
This litigation began in a Georgia court when the respondents filed a common law action of ejectment against the petitioner, a Forest Service Officer of the United States Department of Agriculture.
The petitioner filed a motion to dismiss upon the ground that the suit was in substance and effect one against the United States, which had not consented to be sued or waived its immunity from suit. Noting that the respondents had conceded in a pretrial conference that the petitioner in occupying the land was acting solely as an official or employee of the United States, the District Court granted the motion to dismiss, relying upon Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp., 337 U.S. 682.
For its view that the sovereign immunity of the United States did not bar the maintenance of this suit, the Court of Appeals found principal support in United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196. In that case the Virginia estate of General Robert E. Lee had been acquired by the United States for nonpayment of taxes, although the taxes had in fact been tendered by a third party. An ejectment action was brought against the governmental custodians of the land, upon which a federal military installation and a cemetery had been established. The trial court found that the tax sale had been invalid, and that title to the land was in the plaintiff. This Court upheld a judgment in favor of the plaintiff upon the trial court's finding that the defendants' possession of the land was illegal, holding
In a number of later cases, arising over the years in a variety of factual situations, the principles of the Lee case were approved.
The Court's 1949 Larson decision makes it unnecessary, however, to undertake that task here. For in Larson the Court, aware that it was called upon to "resolve the conflict in doctrine" (337 U. S., at 701), thoroughly reviewed the many prior decisions, and made an informed and carefully considered choice between the seemingly conflicting precedents.
In that case a suit had been brought against the War Assets Administrator to enjoin him from selling surplus coal which, it was alleged, the Administrator had already sold to the plaintiff. The theory of the action was that where "an officer of the Government wrongly takes or
Cutting through the tangle of previous decisions, the Court expressly postulated the rule that the action of a federal officer affecting property claimed by a plaintiff can be made the basis of a suit for specific relief against the officer as an individual only if the officer's action is "not within the officer's statutory powers or, if within those powers, only if the powers, or their exercise in the particular case, are constitutionally void." 337 U. S., at 702. Since the plaintiff had not made an affirmative allegation of any relevant statutory limitation upon the Administrator's powers, and had made no claim that the Administrator's action amounted to an unconstitutional taking, the Court ruled that the suit must fail as an effort to enjoin the United States.
While not expressly overruling United States v. Lee, supra, the Court in Larson limited that decision in such a way as to make it inapplicable to the case before us. Pointing out that at the time of the Lee decision there was no remedy by which the plaintiff could have recovered compensation for the taking of his land,
No such claim has been advanced in the present case. Nor has it been asserted that the petitioner was exceeding his delegated powers as an officer of the United States in occupying the land in question,
MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER took no part in the decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE WHITE took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, dissenting.
United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, serves a useful function and should be followed here. There, as here, the contest was over real estate which an officer of the Federal Government held against the claim of the plaintiff. Here, as there, if the federal agent's possession of the
United States v. Lee was a five-to-four decision. But as late as 1947 seven members of the Court agreed to the statement in Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731, 737, that "[w]here the right to possession or enjoyment of property under general law is in issue, and the defendants claim as officers or agents of the sovereign, the rule of United States v. Lee, supra, has been repeatedly approved." Two years later in Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp., 337 U.S. 682, the case of United States v. Lee was attempted to be distinguished in the manner indicated by the Court. But the Larson decision was six to three, Mr. Justice Rutledge concurring in the result and my vote being the fifth. But I explained my concurrence on the following grounds:
The holding in United States v. Lee has thus not been repudiated or necessarily restricted by anything decided prior to today.
The Court is quite correct in saying that all of our decisions in this field cannot easily be reconciled; and the same will doubtless be true if said by those who sit here several decades hence. The reason the decisions are not consistent is that policy considerations, not always apparent on the surface, are powerful agents of decision. Thus the Larson case was a suit for specific performance of a contract to sell coal, a matter that courts had long left to damage suits. As I said in my separate concurrence in that case, any other rule would "clog" government procurement "with intolerable burdens." 337 U. S., at 705.
Ejectment, on the other hand, is the classic form of action to try title. It takes place in the locality where the land is located. No judges are better qualified to try it than the local judges. It is a convenient and ready form of remedy for possession of land. Moreover, the United States, not being a party, is not bound by the state court decree. If it is aggrieved by the state or federal court ruling on title, it can bring its arsenal of power into play. Eminent domain—with the power immediately to take possession—is available.
If, however, the citizen must bow to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, he is precluded from any relief except a suit for damages under 28 U. S. C. § 1346 (b) or 28 U. S. C. § 1346 (a) (2), or 28 U. S. C. § 1491. This places the advantage with an all-powerful Government, not with the citizen. He may, as the Court says, go into court and get the value of his property. But he does not
The result is at war with our prior decisions. Those remedies with which the Court leaves the property owner are not "special remedies" provided to "displace those that otherwise would be at the plaintiff's command." See Sloan Shipyards v. United States Fleet Corp., 258 U.S. 549, 567. As stated by MR. JUSTICE FRANKFURTER:
What Mr. Justice Miller said in United States v. Lee, supra, 220, 221, needs repeating:
Sovereign immunity has become more and more out of date, as the powers of the Government and its vast bureaucracy have increased. Keifer & Keifer v. Reconstruction Finance Corp., 306 U.S. 381, 390 et seq. To give the agent immunity from suit is, to use the words of Mr. Justice Holmes:
The balance between the convenience of the citizen and the management of public affairs is a recurring consideration in suits determining when and where a citizen can sue a government official. See Williams v. Fanning, 332 U.S. 490. The balance is, in my view, on the side of the citizen where he claims realty in the Government's possession and where there are ready means of adjudicating the title. If legal title is actually in the claimant, if the action of the official in taking possession under authority of the United States is ultra vires, what objectionable interference with governmental functions can be said to exist?
I am authorized to say that MR. JUSTICE HARLAN agrees with this opinion.
"A civil action or criminal prosecution commenced in a State court against any of the following persons may be removed by them to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place wherein it is pending:
"(1) Any officer of the United States or any agency thereof, or person acting under him, for any act under color of such office or on account of any right, title or authority claimed under any Act of Congress for the apprehension or punishment of criminals or the collection of the revenue.
"(2) A property holder whose title is derived from any such officer, where such action or prosecution affects the validity of any law of the United States.
"(3) Any officer of the courts of the United States, for any act under color of office or in the performance of his duties;
"(4) Any officer of either House of Congress, for any act in the discharge of his official duty under an order of such House."