McVeigh v. United States

The citation for this case is 78 US [11 Wallace] 259. This is another case of forfeiture of property under the Confiscation Acts. The report references Miller v. United States and directs readers to read that case to get an understanding of all the provisions of the Confiscation Act. William N. McVeigh, a Virginian living in Richmond, owned property in a part of Virginia occupied by Union troops. US Attorneys in that area brought a libel against the property in accordance with the Confiscation Act and sought to have the property confiscated from McVeigh. McVeigh found out about this and retained an attorney as representation. Because McVeigh was living in Richmond, the District Court struck down his claim to the property and a summary judgment awarded the property to the United States. McVeigh appealed to the Circuit Court and lost, then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Here’s how the Court’s report put the case: “The libel alleged that subsequent to July 17, 1862, the said McVeigh held and exercised an office and agency of honor, and trust, and profit, under the government of the Confederate states, and under one of the states of said Confederacy, and that he accepted the appointment, and was elected to the office and agency after the date of the ordinance of secession of said state; and that he took an oath of allegiance to and to support the Constitution of the Confederate states; and that since July, 1862, he had assisted and given aid and comfort to the rebellion, and to those engaged in the rebellion, by acting on the 18th of July, 1862, and at various times subsequently as a soldier, and as an officer, and as a noncommissioned officer in the army and navy of the Confederate states; and by contributing money and property to the aid and encouragement of those engaged in the rebellion. The libel was afterwards amended so as to charge, in addition to the above offenses, that McVeigh, on the 18th of July, 1862, was engaged in armed rebellion against the government of the United States, and notwithstanding the President, on the 25th of July, 1862, issued his proclamation warning all persons thus engaged to cease participating in aiding, countenancing, and abetting such rebellion, the said McVeigh did not within sixty days thereafter cease to aid, countenance, and abet such rebellion, and return to his allegiance to the United States. McVeigh appeared by counsel, made a claim to the property, and filed an answer. This answer was not contained in the record, and nothing of its contents appeared except what was stated in the order of the court made on the motion of the attorney of the United States. The attorney of the United States, however, moved that the claim, answer, and appearance be stricken from the files, as it appeared from the answer filed, that at the time of filing it the party was ‘a resident of the City of Richmond, within the Confederate lines, and a rebel.’ The court granted the motion. Subsequently the default of all persons was taken, and a decree was rendered for the condemnation and sale of the property. The case was carried to the circuit court, and there the decree was affirmed. It was now brought here on writ of error.” [78 US 259, 260-261]

Justice Swayne delivered the Court’s opinion. In it, he wrote, ” In our judgment, the district court committed a serious error in ordering the claim and answer of the respondent to be stricken from the files. As we are unanimous in this conclusion, our opinion will be confined to that subject. The order in effect denied the respondent a hearing. It is alleged that he was in the position of an alien enemy, and hence could have no locus standi in that forum. If assailed there, he could defend there. The liability and the right are inseparable. A different result would be a blot upon our jurisprudence and civilization. We cannot hesitate or doubt on the subject. It would be contrary to the first principles of the social compact and of the right administration of justice. Whether the legal status of the plaintiff in error was, or was not, that of an alien enemy, is a point not necessary to be considered, because, apart from the views we have expressed, conceding the fact to be so, the consequences assumed would by no means follow. Whatever may be the extent of the disability of an alien enemy to sue in the courts of the hostile country, it is clear that he is liable to be sued, and this carries with it the right to use all the means and appliances of defense. In Bacon’s Abridgment, it is said: ‘For as an alien may be sued at law, and may have process to compel the appearance of his witnesses, so he may have the benefit of a discovery.’ ” [78 US 259, 267-268] Basically, because the previous courts didn’t allow him to answer the charge, it didn’t provide him due process. “Thus it was made abundantly clear by the court that an individual who could be sued in a court in the United States clearly had the right to defend himself in that court, even though, as in the case of McVeigh, he was a resident in the Confederacy and was legally classified as a Rebel and an enemy.” [Robert Bruce Murray, Legal Cases of the Civil War, pp. 204-205]

The Court reversed the ruling and remanded it back to the Circuit Court.


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