US Coins

Top 10 of 2016: Langbord double eagle case rolls on

The Langbord family petit­ioned the U.S. Supreme Court, ask­ing the highest court in the United States to determine the fate of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles.

Original images courtesy of Thomas Mulvaney from the United States Mint.

The Langbord family petit­ioned the U.S. Supreme Court, ask­ing the highest court in the United States to determine the fate of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles, after a rare en banc decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in favor of the government.

In the Aug. 1, 2016, Court of Appeals decision, nine judges agreed that, while there were errors in 2011 at the trial level, these mistakes did not affect the outcome. Despite the Langbord family’s claim that there was a window of opportunity in March 1933 when someone could have exchanged gold for coins — including 1933 double eagles — the August decision found that the government’s experts established at the 2011 trial that no 1933 double eagles ever left the Mint through authorized channels.

While most decisions at the federal Appeals level are made by three-judge panels, en banc hearings are generally for complex cases and often are utilized in cases where the court’s decision would have broader consequences that would go beyond the scope of the case at hand.

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Joan Langbord has long alleged she found the coins in the back of a safe deposit box shortly after the auction of the sole 1933 double eagle that can be privately owned was sold for $7.6 million in 2002. The coins were alongside property that had belonged to her father, Philadelphia jeweler and occasional coin dealer Israel Switt. Her two sons joined her in the lawsuit. Through attorney Barry Berke the family presented the coins to the U.S. Mint for authentication. The Mint did not return the coins and has consistently contended that “all 1933 Double Eagles are, and always have been, property belonging to the United States” and that the Langbord family had “voluntarily surrendered” the coins to the Mint.

Disputed for a decade

The Langbord family brought suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in December 2006, requesting that the government either initiate a forfeiture pro­ceeding or return the coins.

That District Court ruled in favor of the Langbords, finding that the Mint seized the coins unlawfully and that the family’s constitutional due process rights were violated. In July 2011 a jury ruled in favor of the government and on Aug. 29, 2012, the District Court confirmed that the coins were not lawfully removed from the Mint and remained property of the government.

A key question throughout has been whether the government appropriately filed its forfeiture complaint in 2009 within a 90-day statutory deadline. In April 2015, two judges in a three-judge panel within the Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned much of the district court’s previous rulings, finding that the government missed a crucial deadline under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act.

This effectively overturned the 2011 jury decision, and the court ordered that the coins be returned to the family.

At oral arguments before the full Third Circuit Court of Appeals on Oct. 15, 2015, the Langbord family contended that the government filed its forfeiture action too late and the district court erred at trial with respect to evidence and its jury instructions. The government continued to stress that it did not have to initiate forfeiture proceedings against the coins because it was not obligated to repossess its own property. The Aug. 1 decision found that the government “had merely repossessed its own property” and “asserted its ownership rights to the coins.”

‘Final’ resolution

In its Nov. 4, 2016, petition to the United States Supreme Court, the family asked the justices to overturn the District and Appellate court decisions favoring the government. The family and its attorneys hope that the Supreme Court accepts the case, “To make clear that in contested situations: (1) the government may not confiscate and retain property based on nothing more than its unilateral claim that it is the rightful owner, and (2) if it does so, it must suffer the penalty that Congress thought necessary and appropriate to deter government overreaching — i.e., loss of its ability to seek forfeiture of that property.”

The Supreme Court receives as many as 10,000 requests to hear cases per year and only accepts 80 to 100 cases in a typical year. While the chances are small, the Langbord family is hoping that the broader implications presented will persuade the highest court to hear its case.  

Read all of our Coin World Top 10 of 2016 series:

U.S. Mint issues gold Centennial coins
Pogue IV auction tops $16 million
Rare English gold coin found in toy box
Boutique bullion trend catches on worldwide
Langbord 1933 double eagle case rolls on
1974-D aluminum cent returned to U.S. Mint
Treasury announces new Federal Reserve note designs
1964 Morgan dollar tooling uncovered
American Liberty silver medal released
U.S. Mint plans yearlong 225th anniversary party

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