Langford v. United States: The Court Rejects “The King Can Do No Wrong”?

Langford v. United States: The Court Rejects “The King Can Do No Wrong”?

Or, No More Kings?


Long story short, this case came up in the context of the 1926 proposal for a Federal Tort Claims Act. The Justices seem to pretty squarely reject the idea of the “King Can Do No Wrong”. But not sovereign immunity entirely.

Here’s the excerpt.

101 U.S. 341; 25 L. Ed. 1010; 1879 U.S. LEXIS 1924; 11 Otto 341
April 19, 1880, Decided; OCTOBER, 1879 Term

“The argument rests on two distinct propositions: 1. That the maxim of English constitutional law, that the king can do no wrong, is one which the courts must apply to the government of the United States, and that therefore there can be no tort committed by the government. 2. That by virtue of the constitutional provision that private property shall not be taken for public use, without just compensation, there arises in all cases where such property is so taken an implied obligation to pay for it.

It is not easy to see how the first proposition can have any place in our system of government.

We have no king to whom it can be applied. The President, in the exercise of the executive functions, bears a nearer resemblance to the limited monarch of the English government than any other branch of our government, and is the only individual to whom it could possibly have any relation. It cannot apply to him, because the Constitution admits that he may do wrong, and has provided, by the proceeding of impeachment, for his trial for wrong-doing, and his removal from office if found guilty. None of the eminent counsel who defended President Johnson on his impeachment trial asserted that by law he was incapable of doing wrong, or that, if done, it could not, as in the case of the king, be imputed to him, but must be laid to the charge of the ministers who advised him.

It is to be observed that the English maxim does not declare that the government, or those who administer it, can do no wrong; for it is a part of the principle itself that wrong may be done by the governing power, for which the ministry, for the time being, is held responsible; and the ministers personally, like our President, may be impeached; or, if the wrong amounts to a crime, they may be indicted and tried at law for the offence.

We do not understand that either in reference to the government of the United States, or of the several States, or of any of their officers, the English maxim has an existence in this country.”

Or, as School House Rock sums it up, “No More Kings!” (It’s worth watching) Watch video

Some other interesting cases from that time period involving the Chief Justice of the Court during Langford:

The Head Money Cases (1884), the Ku-Klux Case (United States v. Harris, 1883), the Civil Rights Cases (1883), Pace v. Alabama (1883), and the Legal Tender Cases (including Juillard v. Greenman) (1883). Among his own most important opinions were those in the Enforcement Act Cases (1875), the Sinking Fund Cases (1878), the Railroad Commission Cases (1886) and the Telephone Cases (1887).

Thanks Wikipedia for the list of cases.


Posted on December 9, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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