ON NOVEMBER 25, 1837, Susan Decatur, the widow of the American naval hero, Commodore Steven Decatur, brought suit against Secretary of the Navy James K. Paulding, claiming that he had failed to pay her the pension to which she was entitled. Earlier that year Congress had passed a law providing pensions to the widows of officers who had died in naval service and on the same day had adopted a resolution specifically awarding a five-year pension to Mrs. Decatur. Secretary Paulding had paid Mrs. Decatur one pension but not the other. Mrs. Decatur argued that she was entitled to both. The court denied her claim and she appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court refused even to consider the merits of her claim on the grounds that to do so would require the Court to tell an executive officer of the government how to do his job. More particularly, Chief Justice Roger Taney, speaking for the Court, said that the federal courts cannot "guide and control" the "judgment or discretion" such officers exercise in the performance of their duties. The courts can compel an officer to perform a "ministerial" act--that is, one clearly and precisely prescribed by law--but they cannot tell him how to perform an "executive" act, that is, one involving judgment or discretion. Even though Congress had passed two laws that on the face of it seemed to require giving Susan Decatur two pensions, the Court took the view that the secretary of the navy was entitled to choose whether to follow both or only one; after all, he was responsible for conserving the funds available for paying naval pensions. Thus he had discretion and thus the courts were powerless to tell him how to use it. "The interference of the Courts with the performance of the ordinary duties of the executive departments of government, would be productive of nothing but mischief."1
Over one hundred and thirty years later, a group of citizens sued Sec