Supreme Court Posts

FLASHBACK: No Payday For The Band Leader?

Now that we're between terms, let's take a quick trip in our time machine.  Here’s a set of facts for you to ponder…       

During the Civil War, the defendant, Colonel Capehart, was in command of a Union calvary regiment.  Capehart approached the plaintiff, Alexander Rankin, asking him to organize and lead a band for the regiment.  For this work, he would be paid a $100 over and above his military pay.  Rankin enlisted, went through training, and in due course was assigned to Capehart’s regiment.  Rankin fulfilled his obligations and remained in active military service until June, 1865, at which time Capehart welshed on the deal. 

Rankin sued Capehart in Ohio County, West Virginia, and obtained a judgment of $625.  Capehart appealed.  Unfortunately for Rankin, the Supreme Court fixated on the issue of whether the contract itself was legal.  Judge Maxwell noted that an act of Congress authorizing regimental bands had been on the books, but was repealed before Capehart and Rankin entered into their deal.  For Judge Maxwell, that was really the end of the story:  “The effect of the contract was to place about the headquarters of Capehart a number of men not only not authorized, but forbidden by law, fed, clothed and paid at the expense of the government, as the leader of whom Rankin was to receive from Capehart, in addition to his government pay, $100 dollars per month.  Under these circumstances can Rankin recover from Capehart what he promised to pay?” 

Obviously, the question answers itself.  Because the contract was illegal, Judge Maxwell, and the rest of the Court, found it to be unenforceable--leaving Rankin without a remedy.

This seems like a strange result.  Rankin sued Capehart, not the U.S. Army.  Didn’t Capehart have the right to make a contract promising to pay Rankin out of his own pocket?  Rankin certainly thought so.  Think about it.  On the strength of Capehart’s promise, Rankin joined the Army, organized a band, and led it faithfully.  Capehart got everything what he asked for.  Rankin got nothing.  Sounds like an injustice to me.  I think the band leader deserved better.  What about you?

Capehart v. Rankin, 3 W.Va. 571 (1869).