CRS Annotated Constitution
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Suits Against United States Officials.—United States v. Lee, a five–to–four decision, qualified earlier holdings to the effect that where a judgment affected the property of the United States the suit was in effect against the United States, by ruling that title to the Arlington estate of the Lee family, then being used as a national cemetery, was not legally vested in the United States but was being held illegally by army officers under an unlawful order of the President. In its examination of the sources and application of the rule of sovereign immunity, the Court concluded that the rule “if not absolutely limited to cases in which the United States are made defendants by name, is not permitted to interfere with the judicial enforcement of the rights of plaintiff when the United States is not a defendant or a necessary party to the suit.”868 Except, nevertheless, for an occasional case like Kansas v. United States,869 which held that a State cannot sue the United States, most of the cases involving sovereign immunity from suit since 1883 have been cases against officers, agencies, or corporations of the United States where the United States has not been named as a party defendant. Thus, it has been held that a suit against the Secretary of the Treasury to review his decision on the rate of duty to be exacted on imported sugar would disturb the whole revenue system of the Government and would in effect be a suit against the United States.870 Even more significant is Stanley v. Schwalby,871 which resembled without paralleling United States v. Lee, where it was held that an action of trespass against an army officer to try title in a parcel of land occupied by the United States as a military reservation was a suit against the United States because a judg[p.749]ment in favor of the plaintiffs would have been a judgment against the United States.
Subsequent cases repeat and reaffirm the rule of United States v. Lee that where the right to possession or enjoyment of property under general law is in issue, the fact that defendants claim the property as officers or agents of the United States does not make the action one against the United States until it is determined that they were acting within the scope of their lawful authority.872 Contrariwise, the rule that a suit in which the judgment would affect the United States or its property is a suit against the United States has also been repeatedly approved and reaffirmed.873 But, as the Court has pointed out, it is not “an easy matter to reconcile all of the decisions of the court in this class of cases,”874 and, as Justice Frankfurter quite justifiably stated in a dissent, “the subject is not free from casuistry.”875 Justice Douglas’ characterization of Land v. Dollar, “this is the type of case where the question of jurisdiction is dependent on decision of the merits,”876 is frequently applicable.
The case of Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Corp.,877 illuminates these obscurities somewhat. A private company sought to enjoin the Administrator of the War Assets in his official capacity from selling surplus coal to others than the plaintiff who had originally bought the coal, only to have the sale cancelled by the Administrator because of the company’s failure to make an advance payment. Chief Justice Vinson and a majority of the Court looked upon the suit as one brought against the Administrator in his official capacity, acting under a valid statute and therefore a suit against the United States. It held that although an officer in such a situation is not immune from suits for his own torts, yet his official action, though tortious, cannot be enjoined or diverted, since it is also the action of the sovereign.878 The Court then proceeded to repeat the rule that “the action of an officer of the sovereign (be it holding, taking, or otherwise legally affecting the plaintiff’s property) can be[p.750]regarded as so individual only if it 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.”879 The Court rejected the contention that the doctrine of sovereign immunity should be relaxed as inapplicable to suits for specific relief as distinguished from damage suits, saying: “The Government, as representative of the community as a whole, cannot be stopped in its tracks by any plaintiff who presents a disputed question of property or contract right.”880
Suits against officers involving the doctrine of sovereign immunity have been classified by Justice Frankfurter in a dissenting opinion into four general groups. First, there are those cases in which the plaintiff seeks an interest in property which belongs to the Government or calls “for an assertion of what is unquestionably official authority.”881 Such suits, of course, cannot be maintained.882 Second, cases in which action adverse to the interests of[p.751]a plaintiff is taken under an unconstitutional statute or one alleged to be so. In general these suits are maintainable.883 Third, cases involving injury to a plaintiff because the official has exceeded his statutory authority. In general these suits are maintainable.884 Fourth, cases in which an officer seeks immunity behind statutory authority or some other sovereign command for the commission of a common law tort.885 This category of cases presents the greatest difficulties since these suits can as readily be classified as falling into the first group if the action directly or indirectly is one for specific performance or if the judgment would affect the United States.
Suits Against Government Corporations.—The multiplication of government corporations during periods of war and depression has provided one motivation for limiting the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In Keifer & Keifer v. RFC,886 the Court held that the Government does not become a conduit of its immunity in suits against its agents or instrumentalities merely because they do its work. Nor does the creation of a government corporation confer upon it legal immunity. Whether Congress endows a public corporation with governmental immunity in a specific instance is a matter of ascertaining the congressional will. Moreover, it has been held that waivers of governmental immunity in the case of federal instrumentalities and corporations should be construed liberally.887 On the other hand, Indian nations are exempt from suit without further congressional authorization; it is as though their former immunity as sovereigns passed to the United States for their benefit, as did their tribal properties.888
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