Veto Message to the House of Representatives
To the House of Representatives:
I return herewith to the House of Representatives, in which it originated, House bill No. 2219, entitled "An act for the relief of the administrators of Isaac P. Tice, deceased, and others," without my approval.
The object of this bill is to confer upon the Court of Claims jurisdiction to retry and determine a case brought by the representatives of Isaac P. Tice against the United States in the Court of Claims in the year 1873 to recover from the Government the sum of $25,000, the alleged value of certain meters invented by Isaac P. Tice for the purpose of measuring the quality and strength of distilled spirits.
It was claimed that this amount, together with the sum of $733.33 for storage of said meters, was due to the claimant under a contract made between Tice and the Commissioner of Internal Revenue in pursuance of section 15 of the act of March 2, 1867 (14 Stats., 481). From the report of the case in 13 Court of Claims Reports, 112, it appears that the matter was fully and deliberately tried and argued both on behalf of the claimant and of the United States, and that at December term, 1877, the Court of Claims rendered a decision adverse to the claimant, expressly stating that the claimants had failed to establish their claim both in law and on the facts. Not satisfied with this conclusion of the Court of Claims, the claimants took an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, where the case was again argued and was decided, October term, 1878, the judgment of the Court of Claims being declared to be in accordance with the law and therefore affirmed. In these two decisions the law and the facts pertaining to the claim were fully set forth and discussed.
The bill further confers upon the Court of Claims jurisdiction to try and determine certain alleged claims of said Tice and others for money collected on account of the Tice meters, but not paid over to him or them under the regulations of the Treasury.
The amount of the latter claim, according to the report of the committee of the House of Representatives to which this bill was referred, is $140,000. It does not appear from the report of the committee, nor from any documents to which I have access, who are the other persons by whom this latter sum is claimed. The claim for $140,000 must have accrued prior to July, 1871, and therefore at this time is of at least twenty-seven years' standing.
It will thus be perceived that the object of the bill is to remove from the pathway of the claimants two legal bars to the prosecution of their claim in the courts--one, the bar of the statute of limitations, which requires all claimants against the Government to present their claims and bring actions thereon within six years from the time the cause of action accrues; and the other, that bar of estoppel which arises by reason of a former adverse judgment, rendered in a court of competent jurisdiction. This is not a general modification of the law in these respects, but a special application of it to these particular claimants.
If the principle on which the statute of limitations is founded is wise and beneficent, then the effect of it ought not to be impaired by special legislative exemptions in favor of particular persons or cases except upon very clear and just grounds, where no lack of diligence in the prosecution of the claim is apparent. I cannot find in the papers submitted to me any sufficient grounds to justify a special exception from the ordinary rule in favor of these claimants. As to the claim for $140,000, no reason is stated why it was not included in the original suit nor why action upon it was not brought against the Government within the six years allowed by the statute for that purpose. To permit such an action to be brought now is simply, without any reason of a special nature, to grant a privilege to these claimants which is denied to all other citizens of the United States, in accordance with the provisions of the general statute of limitations. The principle underlying statutes of limitations and the reasons for the maintenance of such a rule of litigation are much more cogent when applied to claims against the Government than when applied to claims against individuals.
These claims do not differ in their character from ordinary business transactions such as transpire every day between private persons or business corporations. The Government can only defend itself against claims of this nature through its public officers and with the use of such public records as the Departments may furnish. Great difficulties are experienced by it in contesting fraudulent and unjust claims, and it is only fair in the interest of the public that a rigorous adherence to some rule of limitation should be maintained.
The provision of the bill which practically directs a new trial of the claim for $25,000, decided adversely to the claimants more than twenty years ago, is still more objectionable. These parties had their day in court. They produced their witnesses and were heard both originally and upon appeal, and upon the case they were then able to make the court decided they had no claim against the Government. It is now suggested that other witnesses have been discovered who can supply the lack of proof which was produced on the former trial. Such a ground for a new trial would never be considered in any court of law in the land in a case between private parties where such a length of time had intervened since the former trial. No explanation of a satisfactory nature is furnished for the failure of the claimants to produce these witnesses upon the original trial.
The bill further provides that upon a retrial of the original claim, or upon the trial of the new claim, the claimants shall be at liberty to offer in evidence the depositions of witnesses now on the files of any of the committees of Congress in relation to the aforesaid matters, which may be introduced as evidence in case of the death or disability of the deponents.
This provision will enable the claimants to present ex-parte affidavits, prepared by the claimants or their attorneys, without opportunity being afforded to the Government to cross-examine, provided the claimants can show that the deposing witnesses are either dead or under disability, by which, no doubt, is intended any such disability by reason of absence, illness, and the like, as may render them legally incapable of being produced in person to testify upon the retrial. Such a provision as this is most dangerous to the interests of the Government.
I fail to see any reason in the facts connected with these claims for granting to these parties relief of this extraordinary nature.
The Treasury of the United States ought to be very carefully guarded against attacks of those who come forward with stale claims, and especially from the attacks of those who have already been fully heard according to the methods prescribed by the statutes.
To approve this bill would be to furnish a very dangerous precedent which would open the door to demands upon Congress in other cases which have been fully heard and determined.
For these reasons I am constrained to withhold my approval from this bill.
William McKinley, Veto Message to the House of Representatives Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/267811