Vanderheyden v. Young, 1814

11 Johns. 150 (1814)

Liability of Military Officers in Officiating in a Court-Martial

In The Founders’ Constitution, an anthology of writings (letters, records of debates and early cases) relating to the Federal Constitution, Justice Spencer’s opinion in Vanderheyden v. Young is included as Document 14 of the materials relating to Article 1, Section 8, Clause 16 (Organizing, Arming and Disciplining the Militia).

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Great Britain. The following September, President Madison ordered a portion of the New York State militia into the public service of the United States.

New York Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, as Commander-in-Chief, issued orders requiring the officers, noncommissioned officers, musicians and privates of the Rensselaer County Light Infantry Company led by Captain Benjamin Higbee to join Brigadier General Bloomfleld in Plattsburgh. Mr. Young, a private in Captain Higbee’s Company, arrived in Troy as instructed, marched to Plattsburgh, and was stationed there until September 30, 1812, when he deserted.

A general court-martial composed of militia officers of the State of New York was established by Major General Dearborn to try those from the counties of Rensselaer, Columbia and Washington who had refused to obey the order into the military service, or had failed to perform the duties required of them. Major Vanderheyden presided at the session held in Hudson in February 1813, when Private Young was charged with desertion. He pleaded guilty, was ordered to pay a fine of $75 and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment. Young was then placed under guard while the record of the proceedings was transmitted to Major General Dearborn, who alone had authority to order the execution of a sentence.

Private Young sued Major Vanderheyden, in his capacity as president of the court marshal, for damages for assault and false imprisonment resulting from his placement under guard following the court-martial. Major Vanderheyden admitted the acts as stated, but asserted justification under the Act of 28th Feburary, 1795,1 the orders of the United States President, and the Articles of War.

The case came before the Supreme Court of Judicature in May 1814 and Justice Ambrose Spencer delivered the Court’s opinion, with Justice William Van Ness dissenting. Spencer noted that, following a conviction, a court-martial may keep the accused in custody until the decision of the commanding general, affirming or reversing the sentence, is available. Where a court-martial has jurisdiction over a case, and exercised its authority in a reasonable manner, its members cannot be held liable in an action for damages for any judgment, however erroneous, that they may have rendered. Justice Spencer stated it would be most mischievous and pernicious to subject men acting in a judicial capacity, to actions, where their conduct is fair and impartial, when they are uninfluenced by any corrupt or improper motives, for a mere mistake of judgment. The Court gave judgment for the defendant.

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