A lot of lawyers are history buffs. This may have to do with history’s emphasis on causation and social forces; concerns shared with the law. It may also be because of how history’s indentations are often visible in the law and its mechanics.
Temple v. Cleve Her Many Horses involved a cattle rancher seeking an injunction against the superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Pine Ridge. The BIA impounded a number of Curtis Temple’s cattle, claiming that they were trespassing on grazing units leased to someone else. Temple claimed that they had been impounded wrongfully and sought to enjoin the BIA from selling the animals. Federal District Judge Jeffrey Viken denied Temple’s request.
In medieval England, there were only courts of law; courts staffed with judges applying English common law. Occasionally, a litigant would be dissatisfied with the ruling of a court of law and appeal directly to the King’s conscience. Eventually, the King delegated this task to his Chancellor, a man typically schooled in theology. Sir (and Saint) Thomas More was one early Chancellor, although he was versed both in theology and in law.
Over time, another system of courts, courts of chancery, was established applying not law, but equity. When a litigant was unhappy with the ruling of a court of law, he might try to obtain relief from a court of equity. But the courts of equity were special. To demonstrate a right to relief in equity, a litigant had to show that his remedy at law was inadequate.
Today, there are no longer separate courts of equity and law in England or in the United States. Yet when a party seeks equitable relief, he is still required to show how his remedy at law would be insufficient to remedy the other party’s wrongful deeds. The courts of law provided relief in the form of money judgments. The courts of equity could provide more creative relief — orders to do or refrain from doing something — which years ago were supported by the sovereign’s imprint.
And so Curtis Temple was required to demonstrate how — assuming the BIA had in fact wrongfully impounded his cattle — relief in the form of a money judgment would be inadequate; why his request for injunctive relief barring the BIA from selling the cattle was the only means to effectively remedy the wrong.
Judge Viken ruled that Temple had failed to establish any special circumstances entitling him to the equitable remedy of an injunction. The law regards cattle as fungible; replaceable with like animals (unlike land, each parcel of which is unique and therefore irreplaceable).
After a trial, if the court were to agree that the BIA’s impounding of Temple’s cattle had been wrongful, Temple could be awarded a money judgment. With the money, he could buy new cattle. The judgment could also include calculations for the lost profits and calves that Temple also would have lost.
Temple had failed to demonstrate that if the cattle were sold, his entire ranching operation would fail. He asserted that his livelihood would be threatened and that he would face financial ruin. But he did not prove how many cattle remained in his herd after the impoundment or any other measurable evidence.
Therefore, the theoretical courthouse doors of the court of equity were closed to Temple, leaving him to pursue his lawsuit in the court of law.
A lot has changed since Thomas More was Henry VIII’s Lord High Chancellor, and yet the legal thinking of those days still permeates judicial reasoning today.
Thomas E. Simmons is an assistant professor at the University of South Dakota School of Law in Vermillion. Simmons’ views are his own and not those of USD.