United States v. Klein (1871) – Case Brief Summary (U.S. Supreme Court)

In United States v. Klein (1871) 80 U.S. 128, the executor of the estate of a Confederate supporter sought to recover the value of the decedent's cotton which was seized by treasury agents of the United States during the Civil War.

A statute provided that recovery was available only to individuals who had not "given aid and comfort" to the confederacy. This is just what the decedent had done - he "voluntarily became the surety on the official bonds of certain officers of the rebel confederacy."

United States v. Klein, dealt with a suit for the proceeds of property seized and sold by the army in the Civil War.

The administrator of the deceased prior owner's estate sued under legislation allowing recovery by such owners under proof of loyalty, which the Supreme Court had held was satisfied by receipt of a presidential pardon.

After the plaintiff recovered in the Court of Claims, Congress passed another statute, denying such pardons any effect in showing loyalty and providing that acceptance without protest of a pardon referring to the recipient's participation in the rebellion would affirmatively prove disloyalty.

Congress further directed that on proof of such a pardon or its acceptance, the Court of Claims and Supreme Court should dismiss the suit for want of jurisdiction. Id. at 141-44.

The Supreme Court found the purported limit on its jurisdiction invalid and ineffective.

The U.S. Supreme Court held that Congress may not "prescribe rules of decision" to the courts in cases pending before them without violating the separation of powers.

In Klein, Confederates who had been granted Presidential pardons were suing for the proceeds of property that had been confiscated by the government during the Civil War. Pursuant to his constitutional power, the President had pardoned ex-Confederates and restored their property rights. The Court of Claims decided that the pardon entitled claimants to payment for confiscated property.

The Supreme Court affirmed. Congress then passed a law making such pardons inadmissible in evidence to establish a claimant's entitlement to the confiscated property, but making them conclusive evidence that the bearer had aided in the rebellion. For cases in which the Court of Claims had already ruled in the claimants' favor, the statute deprived the Supreme Court of appellate jurisdiction and directed dismissal of the cases.

The Supreme Court held that Congress' attempt to prescribe rules of decision violated the separation of powers because it prohibited the courts from giving "the effect to evidence which, in its own judgment, such evidence should have," and directed the courts to "give it an effect precisely contrary." (80 U.S. at 147.)

The Supreme Court held that "it is the intention of the Constitution that each of the great co-ordinate departments of the government - the Legislative, the Executive, and the Judicial - shall be, in its sphere, independent of the others." (Id. at 147.)

In United States v. Klein, the Court invalidated a Reconstruction-era statute that effectively nullified one effect of a presidential pardon by establishing a rule of decision for certain cases that rendered a pardon insufficient proof of past loyalty to the Union.