Civil suits filed by the United States government in federal court have been an important means of enforcing federal authority. Congress has also permitted the United States to be sued in its own courts in certain cases, giving individuals an avenue for asserting their legal rights against the federal government.
Article III of the Constitution states that the judicial power of the United States extends "to Controversies to which the United States shall be a Party." In the Judiciary Act of 1789, Congress assigned to the district courts, concurrent with the state courts and the U.S. circuit courts, jurisdiction over common-law suits filed by the United States in which the amount in dispute was at least $100. The district courts were also granted exclusive jurisdiction over all seizures on water and land and all government suits for penalties and forfeitures incurred under the laws of the United States. (In 1815, Congress extended to the district courts jurisdiction over U.S. common-law suits with an amount in controversy of less than $100.) The 1789 Act granted the circuit courts, also concurrent with the state courts, jurisdiction over all civil suits, both common law and equity, in which the United States was a plaintiff or petitioner and the amount in dispute was greater than $500.
The most common United States suit in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was for the collection of money owed to the federal treasury. Enforcement of excise taxes on distilled liquor during the 1790s and 1800s frequently depended on civil actions filed by federal district attorneys in district courts to collect penalties, especially in districts like Kentucky and Pennsylvania where many residents openly resisted paying the tax. The government filed common-law debt actions to recover unpaid taxes and asked courts to condemn and sell goods seized by officials to settle debts due the government. Frequent suits sought to recover unpaid duties on imported goods, which were the largest source of federal revenue. The government also filed suits to ensure that federal officials, such as customs collectors and postmasters, turned over government funds to the federal treasury. Many of these debt suits proceeded against sureties, or individuals who put up a bond that acted as insurance that an official would fulfill his or her obligations to the government. The remainder of U.S. plaintiff actions in the early to mid-nineteenth century included suits for debts due on contracts, damages for injury done to federal property, and suits to prevent individuals from trespassing on or extracting resources from federal lands. Beginning in 1830, the number of U.S. plaintiff actions increased when Congress created the office of the Solicitor of the Treasury, which was charged with coordinating legal action to recover government debts.
The United States' efforts to suppress support for Southern secession during the Civil War led to a significant increase in U.S. suits in federal courts. Added to the routine debt and revenue cases was litigation arising from the seizure of ships, goods, and other personal property under the government's blockade of the Confederacy and confiscation acts passed by Congress. In addition, the United States passed new internal revenue laws to help pay for the war effort, leading to a new surge in government revenue suits in the 1860s and 1870s.
As the federal government adopted new commercial and industrial regulations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the number and variety of U.S. plaintiff actions grew. The Solicitor of the Treasury continued to bring cases to recover unpaid taxes and money due from federal officials, especially customs collectors in the Southern District of New York. But district attorneys also pursued injunctions and civil penalties to enforce laws dealing with railroad labor conditions, railroad rates and safety, and inspection of food and drugs. Amidst the boom in immigration, the federal courts also heard a growing number of cases arising under immigration and naturalization laws. The largest increase in U.S. civil cases came in the 1920s, however, with enforcement of Prohibition, which resulted in thousands of forfeiture and penalty collection cases each year arising from the liquor ban.
Congress only gradually opened the doors of federal courts to individuals seeking relief against the federal government, as distinct from its individual officers. The Supreme Court held as early as 1821 in the case of Cohens v. Virginia , that the United States was protected from suits by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In the early nineteenth century, individuals who sought monetary relief from the federal government could not sue the government itself but had to sue the individual federal officer-who would have to pay out of his own pocket-or submit a petition to Congress seeking a private bill for an appropriation of funds. The United States could only be sued if Congress passed a statute waiving sovereign immunity. Congress waived immunity through numerous statutes for a variety of situations and civil actions. For example, Congress passed a statute in 1824 that allowed suits against the government in federal court for recovery of lands acquired under the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1855, Congress created the Court of Claims to handle money claims against the government that were based on acts of Congress, regulations of an executive department, or expressed or implied contracts with the government. In 1887, Congress passed the Tucker Act, which granted the district courts, for cases concerning less than $1,000, and circuit courts, for cases between $1,000 and $10,000, concurrent jurisdiction with the Court of Claims. The Tucker Act also expanded the right to sue the federal government to include claims based upon the Constitution, and the Act for the first time permitted claims for damages in contract cases. One of the most common type of suits brought under the Tucker Act was an action to recover taxes and customs duties alleged to have been wrongly collected. Although the district courts had concurrent jurisdiction, the Court of Claims, which was reorganized in 1982 and renamed the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in 1992, remained the primary forum for contract claims against the federal government.
The Tucker Act did not permit the United States to be sued for damages arising out of a tort or an injury caused by the action or negligence of a federal official or employee. Congress, in a succession of statutes passed during the twentieth century, eventually waived sovereign immunity for tort claims. Congress passed two laws-the Suits in Admiralty Act of 1920 and the Public Vessels Act of 1925-that permitted suits against the government for torts or personal injuries caused by, or that took place on, merchant marine and military ships. In 1946, Congress passed the Tort Claims Act, which for the first time made the United States liable for damages resulting from the negligence or injurious acts of its employees.
In addition to its legislation regarding suits for monetary damages in contract or tort claims, Congress in 1976 waived sovereign immunity in cases where the plaintiff was seeking relief other than monetary relief, such as an injunction. Individuals had long been able to seek injunctive relief against federal officials by suing them as individuals to halt an action challenged as unconstitutional or beyond their legal authority, though Congress did in 1867 prohibit suits to prevent the assessment or collection of any tax. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in the 1949 case of Larson v. Domestic and Foreign Commerce Corp. that an injunction petition against an official that did not challenge the constitutionality of a statute or regulation was barred under sovereign immunity. Congress in 1976 passed an amendment to the Administrative Procedures Act that specified that suits for other than money damages against an agency or federal official could not be dismissed on the ground that the United States was the party.
Although Congress in many ways has limited sovereign immunity, there continue to be prohibitions against certain kinds of suits. The Tort Claims Act of 1946 protected the government against liability for most so-called intentional torts, such as assault or battery, by federal officials. The law also prevents liability for acts of government employees "exercising due care in the execution of a statute or regulation," even if the statute or regulation is later deemed unconstitutional.
U.S. party litigation grew only modestly in the late twentieth century compared to the dramatic growth in private civil case filings. For most of that century, U.S. civil cases constituted at least a third of all civil cases in the district courts and a much higher portion during periods of particularly voluminous government litigation, such as the years surrounding World War II, when the share reached as high as 70 percent. After 2005, U.S. civil cases as a proportion of all civil filings dropped to between 15 and 20 percent. By the 1970s, the United States was a defendant in the federal courts far more often than a plaintiff. (There was a brief exception to this in the 1980s when the federal government launched a campaign to recover overpayments of benefits and repayments on defaulted loans in response to the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s.) Though tort claims had grown in the post-war period as a result of the passage of the 1946 Tort Claims Act, the growth in U.S. defendant cases was driven primarily by suits brought under federal statutes, especially the Social Security Act, under which appeals from decisions of the Social Security Administration went to the district court. The other major source of U.S. defendant cases was the dramatic increase in the number of prisoner petitions, such as motions to vacate sentences, petitions for a writ of habeas corpus, and challenges under the civil rights acts to the conditions of confinement.
Erwin Chemerinsky, Federal Jurisdiction , 4th Edition (New York: Aspen Publishers, 2003), Chapter 9.
Mark Edward Lender, "This Honorable Court": The United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, 1789-2000 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006).
Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau, Federal Courts in the Early Republic: Kentucky, 1789-1815 (Princeton University Press, 1978).