United States v. Green, 185 U.S. 256 (1902)

Author: Justice White

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United States v. Green, 185 U.S. 256 (1902)

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the Court.

We will first dispose of the questions presented by the appeal of the United States. In substance, it is asserted that the grant should have been rejected in toto, instead of being confirmed to the extent of four sitios, upon the following grounds: 1. That the claim was barred by section 12 of the act establishing the Court of Private Land Claims, because not asserted until after the expiration of two years from the passage of the act. True, it is said, the claim of Green was presented in time, but as he was not represented at the trial, and Cameron and Christie were treated as the sole claimants, and they had not by their cross-complaints asked for affirmative relief within the statutory limitation, the bar of the statute was operative as to them. 2. The intendant and interim bustamente through whom the sale to Romero and others purported to have been effected, and the Commissary General of Sonora, who ultimately extended the title, did not possess the power in the premises which they assumed to exercise. 3. The grant in question was not duly located prior to September 25, 1853, as required by Article VI of the Gadsden Treaty. 4. The grant was not duly recorded in the archives of Mexico prior to September 25, 1853, which was made a condition precedent to the recognition of an alleged grant, by the article of the treaty just referred to.

As respects the bar of the statute, we think the contention is clearly without merit, even upon the hypothesis that the grant to Romero constituted at the date of the treaty, but an imperfect title to the extent to which the court below confirmed the same. The provision of the act establishing the Court of Private Land Claims, relied upon, is as follows:

SEC. 12. That all claims mentioned in section six of this act which are by the provisions of this act authorized to be prosecuted shall at the end of two years from the taking effect of this act, if no petition in respect to the same shall have then been filed as hereinbefore provided, be deemed and taken, in all courts and elsewhere, to be abandoned, and shall be forever barred.

By the filing of the petition on behalf of Green, the court below was vested with jurisdiction to determine the validity of the grant upon which the proceeding was based, and to pass upon the question as to whether or not the lands embraced therein were at the date of the treaty public land of the United States. The terms of the act establishing the Court of Private Land Claims, with reference to a proceeding thus instituted, in our opinion leaves no room for doubt that it was the intention of Congress to require that, before a decision by the court in the premises all those asserting claims in the land adverse to the United States, under the grant relied upon, should be made parties and be heard in support of its validity. The provisions of section six of the act, which relate to claims for confirmation of imperfect and incomplete titles, manifestly import that every adverse possessor or claimant should be made a party defendant, and the section prohibits the entry of a decree "otherwise than upon full legal proof and hearing." By section 7, "all proceedings subsequent to the filing of said petition" are required to "be conducted as near as may be according to the practice of the courts of equity of the United States," and, in addition, it is provided as follows:

The said court shall have full power and authority to hear and determine all questions arising in cases before it relative to the title to the land the subject of such case, the extent, location, and boundaries thereof, and other matters connected therewith fit and proper to be heard and determined, and by a final decree to settle and determine the question of the validity of the title, and the boundaries of the grant or claim presented for adjudication, according to the law of nations, the stipulations of the treaty concluded between the United States and the Republic of Mexico at the City of Guadalupe Hidalgo, on the second day of February, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and forty-eight, or the treaty concluded between the same powers at the City of Mexico on the thirtieth day of December, in the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty-three, and the laws and ordinances of the government from which it is alleged to have been derived, and all other questions properly arising between the claimants or other parties in the case and the United States, which decree shall in all cases refer to the treaty, law, or ordinance under which such claim is confirmed or rejected.

The fact also that, by section 8 the United States may, without limitation as to time, voluntarily institute a proceeding for the determination of the validity or invalidity of any claim or title deemed by it "open to question," affords further support for the construction that Congress intended that in a proceeding brought in due time to settle the validity of an alleged Spanish or Mexican grant, the United States might at any stage of such pending litigation, apply to the Court of Private Land Claims -- as was done by the United States with respect to the defendant Christie -- to have brought into the case adverse claimants who had not been made parties defendant by the petitioner, in order that such parties might be afforded an opportunity to be heard, and the Court of Private Land Claims be aided in reaching a just decision. As further establishing the fact that it was not the purpose of Congress to deprive the Court of Private Land Claims of power to adjudicate upon claims asserted by defendants during the pendency of a lawful proceeding to obtain an adjudication respecting the validity of an alleged Mexican grant, even though such defendants were made parties or filed claims for affirmative relief after the period limited for the institution of an original proceeding to obtain confirmation of a claim of title, we excerpt the following proviso to the portion of section 12 heretofore quoted:

Provided, That in any case where it shall come to the knowledge of the court that minors, married women, or persons non compos mentis are interested in any land claim or matter brought before the court, it shall be its duty to appoint a guardian ad litem for such persons under disability, and require a petition to be filed in their behalf, as in other cases, and if necessary to appoint counsel for the protection of their rights.

The second and third grounds relied upon by the government, as above stated, to defeat the claim in its entirety, do not require extended consideration, as they are foreclosed by recent decisions of this Court. By the law in force at the time of the sale under consideration, a grant initiated in the manner in which the one in question is claimed to have been could not exceed, in the aggregate, four sitios. The evidence clearly showed that the quantity of land denounced, appraised, paid for, and purported to have been granted was only four sitios. Under these circumstances, the court below properly sustained the grant to the extent of four sitios only. As said by the Court of Private Land Claims:

The cause is founded on the proceeding initiated in 1821 and concluded in 1825. In its essential features, it is like Ely v. United States, 171 U.S. 220. The proceedings under which the grant was made are precisely like those upon which the grant in that case was made, and were had under the same laws, and the two grants were made by the same officer.

The case in the particular stated is therefore ruled by Ely v. United States, 171 U.S. 220; United States v. Maish, 171 U.S. 242; Perring v. United States, 171 U.S. 292, and United States v. Camou, 184 U.S. 572, and Reloj Cattle Company v. United States, 184 U.S. 624.

As from the evidence the Court of Private Land Claims was able to determine the true boundaries of the tract as limited, the cases just cited are also authority for deciding that the grant was duly located to that extent, and hence that the court rightfully confirmed the grant for the lawful extent thereof.

The remaining ground upon which the United States contends that the claim should have been rejected, is that it was not established that a record of the grant was made. As respects the evidence of a due recording of the grant, the case at bar is similar to the Ely case, supra, where, however, no question was raised by the government as to the want of a proper record. In the Sonoita grant, passed on in the Ely case, the final title was issued on the same day on which the final title in the case at bar purports to have been issued, and contained a like notation that "note of this title is taken on page 3 of book No. 2 in this general commissariat." A memorandum of this character appears to have been customarily indorsed on the titulo.

The evidence in the case at bar showed that there are only two books of Toma de Razon in the records at the capital of the State of Sonora, Mexico. One book has the figure 1 written on the first page of the first leaf, and contains entries of grants up to and including May 13, 1825. The first entry on the other book bears date of 1831. In the case at bar, the final title or titulo, of date prior to the regulations of 1828, was admitted in evidence without objection or question as to its genuineness, nor was any objection interposed by the government to the introduction in evidence of a letter, dated some time in 1831, written by the provincial secretary of Sonora, on behalf of the commissariat general of that state, alluding to the existence of the title to this San Rafael grant. The expediente is also on file in the Mexican archives, and contains thereon a memorandum of the issue of a grant. In view of all these circumstances, it may properly be presumed that the ministerial duty which it is claimed was imposed on the Mexican officials of registering the fact of the making of a grant of public lands was duly performed, and that such record was in fact made. Whether, as held by the court below, the mere retention in the Mexican archives of the expediente constituted the record of the grant, within the meaning of the treaty of 1853, need not be determined.

We come then to consider the contentions relied upon by the claimants to sustain their appeals. Those contentions are, in substance, that the grant to Romero and his associates constituted a complete and perfect title to the full quantity of land embraced within the original survey, which it was asserted by witnesses for the claimants aggregated, not merely four sitios, but nearly 160,000 acres of land. It is manifest, however, from the authorities which we have previously cited, that as the grant was lawful to the extent of only four sitios, the claimants cannot be heard successfully to assert that it embraced and could be confirmed for the larger quantity.

The previous decisions of this Court also preclude the claim for a confirmation of the grant as to the overplus upon payment of the asserted value of such excess. In Ainsa v. United States, 184 U.S. 639, decided this term, discussing the contention of the claimant that he was entitled to an award of the demaisas or overplus beyond the cabida legal or real quantity granted, upon payment of such amount as might be found due, the court concluded as follows:

It is obvious that this contention cannot be sustained for the reasons indicated, and we repeat what we said in Ely’s Case, 171 U.S. 239:

This government promised to inviolably respect the property of Mexicans. That means the property as it then was, and does not imply any addition to it. The cession did not increase rights. That which was beyond challenge before remained so after. That which was subject to challenge before did not become a vested right after. No duty rests on this government to recognize the validity of a grant to any area of greater extent than was recognized by the government of Mexico. If that government had a right, as we have seen in Ainsa v. United States, it had, to compel payment for an overplus or resell such overplus to a third party, then this government is under no moral or legal obligations to consider such overplus as granted, but may justly and equitably treat the grant as limited to the area purchased and paid for.

Counsel for claimants in their brief call attention to the plea of res judicata interposed by the claimant Cameron, though they do not discuss the same. The action in which the judgment thus pleaded was rendered related to land within the asserted exterior bounds of the grant, near the alleged north and northeast monuments, as said boundaries were recited and measured in the expediente. The courts of the territory had held that the lands enclosed were public lands of the United States, that Cameron had unlawfully enclosed the same, and the removal of the fence enclosing the land was ordered. On appeal, however, this Court, while expressly disclaiming any intention to pass upon the validity of the asserted title of Cameron, held that there was color of title sufficient to take the case outside of the operation of the statute, reversed the judgment against Cameron, and remanded the case with directions to dismiss the petition. 148 U.S. 301. It is clear that, irrespective of the question of parties, the matter passed upon in the fence case was not the same as that which is present in the case at bar. The fence case did not involve, as does the case at bar, the question whether or not the claimant had a valid title to land within the boundaries of the alleged grant, and hence nothing decided in that case was conclusive in this.

Decree affirmed.


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Chicago: White, "White, J., Lead Opinion," United States v. Green, 185 U.S. 256 (1902) in 185 U.S. 256 185 U.S. 265–Joint_185 U.S. 270. Original Sources, accessed October 4, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L216AB2EHA8RBGA.

MLA: White. "White, J., Lead Opinion." United States v. Green, 185 U.S. 256 (1902), in 185 U.S. 256, pp. 185 U.S. 265–Joint_185 U.S. 270. Original Sources. 4 Oct. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L216AB2EHA8RBGA.

Harvard: White, 'White, J., Lead Opinion' in United States v. Green, 185 U.S. 256 (1902). cited in 1902, 185 U.S. 256, pp.185 U.S. 265–Joint_185 U.S. 270. Original Sources, retrieved 4 October 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L216AB2EHA8RBGA.