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Horace Gray

Justice Gray seeks outside input on a case decision that he is writing

Horace Gray, 1828–1902.  Associate Justice, Supreme Court of the United States, 1882–1902.  Autograph Letter Signed, H Gray, as Associate Justice, three pages (including integral leaf), 4½” x 7”, on plain stationery, Boston, [Massachusetts], September 11, 1890. 

This is an excellent content letter in which Justice Gray seeks outside help on an opinion that he is preparing.  Gray, sitting as a judge of the Circuit Court—when Supreme Court Justices still had to “ride the circuit” part of the year—writes to Nathan Webb, the United States district judge for the District of Maine, who had previously decided the case but who was not then sitting on it along with Gray. 

The case was Harmon v. United States, 43 F. 560 (C.C.D. Me. 1890), which involved a claim by a former United States marshal for his fees and reimbursement for expenses for about 1½ years while he served as marshal for the District of Maine.  One issue, which Gray mentions in this letter, was whether the marshal was entitled to charge mileage for actually traveling from his base in Portland, Maine, to Cranberry Isle to serve papers or whether he could charge for constructive travel from Boston, where the Massachusetts case involving the service originated.  The difference was 108 miles and $6.48 that the marshal claimed for miles he had not traveled, but which the comptroller had disallowed.  Because of inflation, $6.48 in 1890 would be about $180 today.

In this letter to Judge Webb, Gray writes, in full:  “The statute of 1875 seems to smite the constructive travel to Cranberry Isle.  But I fear I may not have kept in mind the full strength of your suggestions.  And I shall consider it a peculiar favor if you will give me the benefit of your greater experience in fee bills, as well as of your full and free criticism and suggestions with regard to the opinion, after comparing it (if not too much trouble) with the comptroller’s five points.  The case has given us so much trouble that I wish to make the opinion as perfect as I can.  / Very truly yours . . . ”  He adds a postscript:  “P.S. I send you a copy of the opinion obtained in an admiralty case of some interest.”

The statute that Gray mentions provided that “no . . . officer or person shall become entitled to any allowance for mileage or travel not actually and necessarily performed under the provisions of existing law.”  Thus, Gray’s opinion for the Circuit Court held that “by the statute of 1875, the travel to be allowed to the marshal for serving at Cranberry Isle a subpoena from the circuit court for the district of Massachusetts must be limited to his actual travel within his district from Portland to Cranberry Isle, and cannot include the constructive travel from Boston to Portland, amounting to $6.48.”  Harmon, 43 F. at 566.

Gray issued the decision in Harmon on September 23, 1890, twelve days after he wrote this letter.  The $6.48 was the only part of the marshal’s total claim of $1,770.60 that the court said the controller had properly disallowed.  In fact, the court found the controller’s objections “to the greater part of the [marshal’s] claim” to be “frivolous and vexatious.”  Id. at 567.

Not surprisingly, on appeal the United States Supreme Court affirmed Justice Gray’s decision in United States v. Harmon, 147 U.S. 268 (1893).

This letter is an outstanding example of Gray’s sometimes very difficult handwriting. Gray has written and signed boldly in brown fountain pen.  He has written the end of the letter and signed it on the inside of the front leaf.  The letter has one vertical fold in addition to the integral leaf fold.  It is toned along one fold line in a blank area on the back of the integral leaf, which also has a note in another hand identifying Gray and noting the date of the letter.  The letter is in fine condition. 


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