When a Lot of Wine Had to Defend Itself in Front of the Supreme Court

Lawsuits, in theory, follow a pretty simple pattern: someone sues someone else. Maybe it’s the government bringing criminal charges against an alleged criminal, or two companies embroiled in a lawsuit, or an individual bringing some sort of civil rights claim. In any event, the parties are people or groups of people — Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Roe v. Wade, U.S. v. Nixon. And that makes sense. If you’re involved in a lawsuit, you need to be able to explain your side of the story to a judge or a jury. And that requires the ability to communicate. People can speak, write, sign, or otherwise find ways to express themselves. Things, however, cannot.

And yet, in 1828, the United States Supreme Court was faced with a case that appears to defy this rule. The name of the case? “United States v. 422 Casks of Wine.”

The oddly-named case suggests that the United States government had brought a lawsuit against 422 casks of wine, not the owners of the wine, which seems like a mistake. But, in fact, that’s exactly what happened. It’s kind of complicated to explain why, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Let’s imagine that someone from, say, Spain, wanted to sell a lot of wine to someone in the United States. The two parties would write letters back and forth until they agreed to the terms (we’d probably use phones or email today, but let’s pretend it’s the 1800s), and once the two parties agreed, the winemaker would put the wine on a ship and send it to the United States. But let’s say that this winemaker decided to make themselves some extra money by trying to skirt importation taxes that applied to wine, so instead of labeling the wine “wine,” they put it in some crates labeled “definitely not wine.” Before the ship docks, though, the U.S. authorities come on board to make sure there’s nothing amiss — no one with a communicable disease or the like, no contraband, and of course, no crates of wine pretending to be definitely not wine. Seeing the mislabeled wine, the authorities seized it, as you’d expect.

Here’s the problem, though: the government can’t just go around taking stuff because sooner or later, the owner of the stuff is going to say “hey, give me my stuff back.” And that’s typically not a big problem, at least procedurally. To protect the rights of the owners of that stuff, authorities will go to the court beforehand and ask permission to take the stuff. Alternatively, it might take the stuff first and ask for permission later in some cases. But as a general rule, you need to get a court’s permission. And that means some sort of legal proceeding, which in turn means that there is another person or group of people on the other side of the table.

But what do you do if you don’t know who owns that stuff? For example, the mislabeled wine in our example. The wine is on a ship coming from abroad and the United States government either doesn’t know whose wine it is or doesn’t have jurisdiction over the winemaker. After all the winemaker lives in Spain, not in America. When you go to the court to ask for permission to seize the wine, who is your defendant?

The solution is actually kind of simple: you don’t sue the wine’s owner — you sue the wine. This is called in rem jurisdiction, which is just really a fancy Latin way of saying that the court has jurisdiction over the item itself. The winemaker may not be in the U.S., but the mislabeled wine is, so you just bring a lawsuit against the wine.  Now, of course, wine can’t defend itself in court. But that’s okay because, in theory at least, the person who was trying to buy the wine could go to the court and say “hey, that my wine,” stepping in and defending the wine against the lawsuit. In rem jurisdiction gives the government a way to regulate goods without having to worry about identifying or suing the owner of those goods; the owner (or someone else with a property interest in the item) will emerge if the item is important enough to try to recover.

The hypothetical situation above is basically what happened in United States v. 422 Casks of Wine. The seller shipped the wine but labeled it sherry, not wine, hoping to obtain some sort of tax advantage. The authorities intercepted the boat carrying the sherry-labeled wine and seized it, as you can’t lie about what you’re shipping to get a tax break. It’s a pretty open and shut case, despite the crazy-sounding case name, and the Supreme Court probably should have never had to deal with it. But alas, the government screwed up.

The government brought the case in admiralty court, which adjudicates matters pertaining to the sea, which would apply had the wine been on the ship when the government seized it. But it turned out that the wine had already been brought onto land and therefore, the authorities had to bring their lawsuit in another court. Lawyers representing the people who wanted to buy the wine argued that the admiralty court didn’t have the power to enforce the seizure. The government didn’t disagree but instead argued that the buyers didn’t own the wine yet, and therefore couldn’t defend the wine against the lawsuit. The Supreme Court ruled that the buyers had a “proprietary interest in the thing in controversy” and ruled in their favor. The 422 casks of wine, despite not having a leg to stand on (literally, not figuratively), beat the U.S. government. 

To celebrate, the wine threw a big party and drank itself.

Just kidding. Wine can’t drink itself. And even if it could, the government still was ultimately in the right. It could seize the wine, It just couldn’t enforce the seizure in admiralty court. They refiled the lawsuit In the proper court and won. Presumably, someone paid the taxes and the wine was set free, or the government auctioned it off. but the record doesn’t go into that.

Despite the fact that United States v. 422 Casks of Wine is from the early 1800s, in rem jurisdiction still exists. As a result, you’ll occasionally see a handful of really weird case names, such as a 1976 matter titled United States v. Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More or Less, Each Containing One Pair of Clacker Balls, a 2001 caseUnited States v. One Lucite Ball Containing Lunar Material (One Moon Rock) and One Ten Inch by Fourteen Inch Wooden Plaque, and a 2010 dispute captioned South Dakota v. Fifteen Impounded Cats. You can click any of those links to read what they’re about if you’re so inclined, but in general, they’re not as interesting as their names would suggest.

Bonus fact: In rem jurisdiction is commonly used today by authorities in a controversial maneuver called “civil asset forfeiture.” As the Legal Information Institute at Cornell University explains, civil forfeiture “allows the government (typically the police) to seize — and then keep or sell — any property that is allegedly involved in a crime or illegal activity,” even if the person allegedly committing the crime is never convicted or even charged. The government sues the property, not the owner, in the same manner as in the 422 Casks of Wine case above. Because the case is a civil case and not a criminal one, the government only has to prove that the property was more like than not used in a crime (there’s no “reasonable doubt” standard in these cases), which is usually pretty simple. As a result, it’s very hard for an accused person — even if he or she is never convicted — to get their stuff back. The Legal Information Institute explains: “after [the] property has been seized, the burden of proof shifts to the owner, who must prove that the property was not involved in nor obtained as a result of illegal activity. While the government views civil forfeiture as a powerful tool against the drug trade, organized crime, and political corruption, it is often criticized as an unconstitutional exercise of government power, in violation of the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments, and as against a fundamental element of due process.”

From the Archives: Arresting the Rooster: Another in rem jurisdiction case, one titled United States v. One Solid Gold Object in Form of a Rooster