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Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture 1780-87

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COURT OF APPEALS IN CASES OF CAPTURE (1780-87), the chief Federal court prior to the establishment of the Supreme Court, which in a sense grew out of it. From the nature of the revolt against Great Britain, the colonies were very loath to erect any new plenary power to decide their mutual disputes, which would also create new disputes between it and themselves. The first clash of tions came on the question of naval prizes. As' early as the autumn of 1775 cruisers were cap turing British vessels off the Eastern coast, part under commission from Massachusetts, part from the Continental Congress (see CONTI NENTAL NAVY) ; and Washington, conducting the siege of Boston, was appealed to for deter mination of conflicting claims, there being neither provincial nor Federal courts for trial and condemnation of captures. On 11 Novem ber he suggested to Congress to establish such a court; on the 25th it recommended to the colonies to erect them, reserving an appeal to itself or such persons as it appointed. The act, however, provided neither court, procedure nor method of enforcement, did not define the source or limits of its jurisdiction and had the same defects as the entire Confederation pro ceedings. (See CONFEDERATION, ARTICLES OF). Washington criticized it on the first ground. Nor would Congress take original jurisdiction, but only appellate. Several appeals were re ferred to special committees; then, on 30 Jan. 1777, a special committee on revision of prize methods reported in favor of the creation of a standing committee of five to hear all such appeals. This was appointed, and the following March three more were added, but it was too large, and was shortly reduced to five again, with three as a competent quorum. But Wash ington's suggestion was evidently the right one, and on 5 Aug. 1777 it was moved to consider the establishment of a permanent court. This was discussed for over two years, and not finally acted on till 15 Jan. 1780. Meantime a case had come up which forced some new method on them. Four Connecticut men in the fall of 1778 had been captured by the British and compelled to help navigate the sloop Active toward New York, then in British hands; they recaptured it from the British crew, and were steering it for a patriot port when a Pennsylvania privateer captured them and claimed the sloop as prize. A Pennsylvania

jury gave the Connecticut men one-fourth of the prize, and divided the rest between the privateers and the State of Pennsylvania. The Connecticut men appealed to Congress, which reversed the decision ; the Pennsylvania judge refused to admit its authority, and ordered the sloop and cargo sold and the proceeds divided. (It should be said that the State admiralty act prohibited appeal or rehearings). The commit tee thereupon refused to hear any more cases till its jurisdiction was settled. Congress re solved that such cases could not be left to self interested State decision, but that it would not prejudice the Union by resort to force; and the Connecticut men only obtained their rights many years later through the Supreme Court. After futile conferences with State legislative committees, an act was passed establishing a Federal "Court of Appeals in Cases of to hold sessions first in Philadelphia, and then anywhere they pleased between Hartford, Conn., and Williamsburg, Va. But like all other enact ments of the time, it was shorn of its needful powers: it could not fine or imprison for dis obedience, the State courts were not to execute its decrees Lnd no marshal was appointed. No tenure, either of definite time or good behavior, was assigned to the judges. Three of these were appointed, but one of them died soon after, and the other two performed the duties for two years, when another resigned and two others were chosen. But the cases were grad ually decided after the war, and on 23 Dec. 1784 the docket was reported empty. The judges were still retained, but their salaries were abol ished, except for a per diem allowance when in actual service. About this time the States began to constitute courts of appeal, to take matters out of the hands of the Federal court. The defeated parties, however, insisted on ap peals to the latter, and on 27 June 1786 Congress resolved that these should be heard. The last session of the court was on 16 May 1787 at Philadelphia, while the Convention of 1787 (see CONSTITUTION, FRAMING OF) was framing the Supreme Court. Consult Carson, 'The Supreme Court of the United States: Its History' (1892).