United States v. Keehler

The citation for this case is 76 US [9 Wallace] 83. It’s a December, 1869 Supreme Court case arising out of North Carolina.

Orestes A. Keehler was a postmaster in Salem, North Carolina with $330.03 in Federal funds under his responsibility at North Carolina’s secession. The confederate government ordered him to pay the money to a man named Clemmens [a mail contractor], to whom the United States owed more than $300, which he did. After the war, the US sued for repayment of the funds.

Justice Samuel F. Miller wrote the opinion of the court. In that opinion, Justice Miller wrote, “It certainly cannot be admitted for a moment that a statute of the Confederate States or the order of its Postmaster General could have any legal effect in making the payment to Clemmens valid. The whole Confederate power must be regarded by us as a usurpation of unlawful authority, incapable of passing any valid laws and certainly incapable of divesting, by an act of its Congress or an order of one of its departments, any right or property of the United States. Whatever weight may be given under some circumstances to its acts of force on the ground of irresistible power, or whatever effect may be allowed in proper cases to the legislation of the states while in insurrection — questions which we propose to decide only when they arise — the acts of the Confederate Congress can have no force as law in divesting or transferring rights, or as authority for any act opposed to the just authority of the federal government. This statute of the Confederate Congress and this draft of its post office department are not, therefore, a sufficient authority for the payment to Clemmens.” [76 US 83, 86-87]

Justice Miller next takes on the claim that the Keehler had no choice but to comply with the confederate order, because they were the local power. “But it is further stated (this payment being made on the 10th April, 1862), that throughout the year 1862, the so-called Confederate government had force sufficient to enforce its orders, and did enforce them in that part of North Carolina where defendant resided, and that no protection was afforded to the citizens of that part of the state by the United States government during that period. It will be observed that this statement falls far short of showing the application of any physical force to compel the defendant to pay the money to Clemmens. Nor is it in the least inconsistent with the fact that he might have been desirous and willing to make the payment. It shows no effort or endeavor to secure the funds in his hands to the government, to which he owed both the money and his allegiance. Nor does it prove that he would have suffered any inconvenience or been punished by the Confederate authorities if he had refused to pay the draft of the insurrectionary post office department on him. We cannot see that it makes out any such loss of the money, by inevitable overpowering force, as could even on the mere principle of bailment discharge a bailee. We cannot concede that a man who as a citizen owes allegiance to the United States, and as an officer of the government holds its money or property, is at liberty to turn over the latter to an insurrectionary government, which only demands it by ordinances and drafts drawn on the bailee, but which exercises no force or threat of personal violence to himself or property in the enforcement of its illegal orders. But this Court has decided more than once that in an action on the official bonds of such officers, the right of the government does not rest on the implied contract of bailment, but on the express contract found in the bond, to pay over the funds. And on this principle it was held in United States v. Prescott that a plea which averred positively that the money was stolen from the officer, without any fault or negligence on his part, was no defense. It would be difficult to find a stronger case for relief from a contract to keep safely and pay over the public money than this. But the Court held that the contract was one which the defendant had voluntarily undertaken and which he must at his own peril perform. This ruling was repeated in United States v. Dashiel, also in United States v. Morgan. Such was the law as declared by this Court long before the rebellion broke out, and however hard it may be in some of its aspects, the Court has no option but to act on it.” [76 US 83, 87-88]

Justice Miller found for the United States and ordered Keehler to repay the money.


So what do we learn from this case? The confederate government had no legal standing, and none of its orders had any legal weight. They could compel obedience by violence or threat of violence, but in the absence of that, any obedience by a US citizen was obedience to an illegal order.


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