Claims Court

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The Claims Court hears actions for money damages against the United States, except for tort claims. The court thus hears claims for contract damages, tax refunds, and just compensation for property taken. With the consent of all parties to an action against the government under the federal tort claims act, the court can substitute for a court of appeals and review the decision of a federal district court.

Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the United States cannot be sued without its consent. At first, persons with claims against the government had to ask Congress for relief under private acts. This practice became burdensome, and in 1855 Congress established the Court of Claims to hear nontort money claims against the United States, and report its recommendations to Congress. Much of the congressional burden remained; thus, in 1863, Congress empowered the court to give judgments against the government. In 1866 the process became fully "judicial" when Congress repealed a provision delaying payment of such a judgment until the Treasury estimated an appropriation.

The Court of Claims retained the nonjudicial function of giving advisory opinions on questions referred to it by the houses of Congress and heads of executive departments. However, its judges from the beginning had life tenure during good behavior. In 1933 the question arose whether the Court of Claims was a constitutional court. Congress, responding to the economic depression, reduced the salaries of federal employees, except for judges protected by Article III against salary reductions. In Williams v. United States (1933), the Supreme Court, taking the preposterous position that claims against the government fell outside the judicial power of the united states, held that the Court of Claims was a legislative court whose judges' salaries could constitutionally be reduced.

In 1953 Congress declared explicitly that the Court of Claims was established under Article III. In Glidden v. Zdanok (1962) the Supreme Court accepted this characterization on the basis of two separate (and incompatible) theories, pieced together to make a majority for the result. Two Justices relied on the 1953 Act; three others would have overruled Williams and held that the court had been a constitutional court since 1866 when Congress allowed its judgments to be paid without executive revision, and its business became almost completely "judicial." (The same decision confirmed that the court of customs and patent appeals was a constitutional court.) The Court of Claims transferred new congressional reference cases to its chief commissioner, and Congress ratified this practice. The court's business became wholly "judicial."

In the federal courts improvement act (1982) Congress reorganized a number of specialized federal courts. The Court of Claims disappeared, and its functions were reallocated. The commissioners of that court became judges of a new legislative court, the United States Claims Court. They serve for fifteen-year terms. The Article III judges of the Court of Claims became judges of a new constitutional court, the united states court of appeals for the federal circuit. That court hears appeals from a number of specialized courts, including the Claims Court.

The availability of a suit for damages in the Claims Court serves to underpin the constitutionality of some governmental action that might otherwise raise serious constitutional problems. Some regulations, for example, are arguable takings of property; if the regulated party can recover compensation in the Claims Court, however, the constitutional issue dissolves (Blanchette v. Connecticut General Insurance Corps., 1974).

Kenneth L. Karst


Symposium 1983 The Federal Courts Improvement Act. Cleveland State Law Review 32:1–116.

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Claims Court

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