US Coins

Court of Appeals hears 1933 double eagle case

One of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles at the center of a decade-long dispute between a Philadelphia family and the government. Image by Thomas Mulvaney, courtesy U.S. Mint.

Image by Thomas Mulvaney, courtesy U.S. Mint.

A three-judge panel at Philadelphia’s Federal Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Nov. 19 from the government and the Langbord family. It was the latest installment in the decade-long saga of determining who owns the 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles that were allegedly found by the Langbord family in a safe deposit box. 

The family is appealing a July 20, 2011, jury decision at a federal trial court that returned a verdict in favor of the government on its forfeiture claim for the coins. 

The panel, led by Chief Judge Theodore McKee and Circuit Judges Marjorie Rendell and Dolores Sloviter, was especially lively as it questioned the Langbord’s attorney, Barry H. Berke, and Robert A. Zauzmer, who represented the government. 

Judge Sloviter said the case “should be a movie” and Chief Judge McKee asked who would play Berke in the movie. Berke replied, “Hopefully there’s a happy ending for whoever plays me.” 

Berke contended that the government thought it could ignore the law. He summarized the government’s logic as, “Because we really, really believe we were right here, we didn’t have to comply with CAFRA [the relevant forefeiture stature].” 

Both sides continued their arguments made in briefs filed with the court in August. The government maintains that no 1933 double eagles were ever lawfully issued to the public and the jury made an accurate decision based on relevant evidence. The Langbord family contends that the declaratory action that identified the coins as government property should not have been allowed and that a jury, not a judge, should have made that determination.  

The Court of Appeals will review the trial and its application of the law, and the jury’s decision. If it finds an error that contributed to the trial court’s decision, the court may reverse that decision or order a new trial. In an appeal, the court accepts facts as they were presented in the trial court. 

The parties were directed to file a transcript of the oral argument by Dec. 3. For civil cases in this court the average time from oral argument to decision is just under three months. The overall rate of reversal is a slim 9.4 percent. 

Judge Sloviter asked if a new trial would satisfy Berke, and he replied that the principal remedy he seeks is the return of the coins to the family. In the alternative, Berke requested a new trial without the admission of certain evidence that Berke characterized as unfairly prejudicial against the Langbord family’s arguments. 

To learn more about the arguments presented, see Coin World's story. To listen to the oral arguments, visit here.

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