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The courts are slow to disturb the settled administrative construction of a statute long and consistently adhered to. This is especially the case where the declared will of the legislative body could not be carried out without the construction adopted. That construction must be accepted and applied by the courts when it has received congressional approval.
Petitioner brought an action under the Tucker Act, 24 Stat. 505, in the District Court for Western Washington, seeking compensation at an agreed rate for the transportation of certain destitute seamen from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Seattle, under the provisions of § 4578 R.S., as amended, 46 U. S. C. § 679. The aforementioned section imposed on masters of United States vessels homeward bound the duty, upon request of consular officers, to receive and carry destitute seamen to the port of destination at such compensation not exceeding a specified amount as may be agreed upon by the master with a consular officer, and authorized the consular officer to issue certificates for such transportation, which shall be assignable for collection. The demand in the present case was for compensation for the transportation of the crew of the S. Depere, owned by petitioner, which had been wrecked on the Alaska coast and for that reason had been unable to complete her voyage. The crew was received and carried to Seattle on petitioner's S.S. Yukon, on certificate of the deputy customs collector of Alaska that he had agreed with the master for their transportation at a specified rate. The Comptroller General refused payment upon the certificate on the sole ground that it was the duty of petitioner to transport to the United States the crew of its own wrecked vessel, and that the Congressional appropriation for the relief of American seamen was not available to compensate the owner for performing that duty. Judgment of the district court dismissing the complaint, was affirmed by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on the ground that the certificate of the deputy collector authorizing the transportation did not satisfy the requirement of the statute that the certificate should be that of a consular officer. Certiorari was granted.
Was the petitioner entitled to compensation for transporting the crew of one of its ships, which had been wrecked in Alaska, to Seattle on another of its ships, notwithstanding the fact that the certificate was not issued by the consular officer?
The Supreme Court reversed the decision affirming dismissal. The statute had been construed by long administrative practice as authorizing payment for transportation of seamen from Alaska on the certificates of deputy collectors, although they were not consular officers. Because there were no consular officers in Alaska, if the right to compensation depended on certification by a consular officer, the statutes providing for transportation could be given no effect in Alaska, which was an unacceptable result. The court held that no statute imposed a duty on a vessel or owner to provide transportation for sailors who were shipwrecked.