164 U.S. 190 (1896), 21, Wisconsin Central Railroad Company v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 21
Citation:164 U.S. 190, 17 S.Ct. 45, 41 L.Ed. 399
Party Name:Wisconsin Central Railroad Company v. United States
Case Date:November 16, 1896
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 190

164 U.S. 190 (1896)

17 S.Ct. 45, 41 L.Ed. 399

Wisconsin Central Railroad Company

v.

United States

No. 21

United States Supreme Court

November 16, 1896

Argued October 15-16, 1896

APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF CLAIMS

Syllabus

The changes made in the grants to Wisconsin in the Act of May 5, 1864, to aid in the construction of railroads from those made to that state by the Act of June 3, 1856, rendered necessary some modifications of provisos 1 and 3 of § 1, and of §§ 2, 3 and 4 of the latter act, and they were accordingly reenacted in homologous provisos and sections of the act of 1864; but as the second proviso of § 1 and § 5 of the act of 1856 required no modification, they were not reenacted, but the terms and conditions contained therein were carried forward by reference, as explained in detail in the opinion of the Court.

Statutes granting privileges or relinquishing rights of the public are to be strictly construed against the grantee.

An intention to surrender the right to demand the carriage of mails over subsidized railroads at reasonable rates, assumed in construing a statute of the United States, is opposed to the established policy of Congress.

The terms and conditions imposed on the grant under which the plaintiff in error holds embraced the condition that the mail should be carried at such rates as Congress might fix, and § 13 of the Act of July 12, 1876, was applicable.

The Postmaster General, in directing payment of compensation for mail transportation, does not act judicially.

The action of executive officers in matters of account and payment cannot be regarded as a conclusive determination when brought in question in a court of justice.

The government is not bound by the act of its officers making an unauthorized payment under misconstruction of the law.

Parties receiving moneys illegally paid by a public officer are liable ex aequo et bono to refund them, and there is nothing in this record to take the case out of the scope of that principle.

The forms of pleading in the Court of Claims do not require the right to recover back moneys so illegally paid to be set up as a counterclaim in an action brought by the party receiving them to recover further sums from the government.

[17 S.Ct. 45] An Act of Congress of March 3, 1873, 17 Stat. 556, c. 231, prescribed the rates of compensation for the transportation of the mails on the basis of the average weight, and by an Act

Page 191

of July 12, 1876, 19 Stat. 78, c. 179, the compensation was directed to be readjusted by the Postmaster General as specified on and after July 1, 1876. Section 13 of this act provided

that railroad companies whose railroad was constructed in whole or in part by a land grant made by Congress on the condition that the mails should be transported over their road at such price as Congress should by law direct shall receive only eighty percentum of the compensation authorized by this act.

By an Act approved June 3, 1856, 11 Stat. [17 S.Ct. 46] 20, c. 43, Congress granted to the State of Wisconsin lands to aid in the construction of certain railroads northward and northwestward in said state, ultimately reaching the west end of Lake Superior, the land granted being every alternate odd-numbered section for six sections in width on each side of the roads, respectively. Section 5 of this act provided:

That the United States mail shall be transported over said roads, under the direction of the Post Office Department at such price as Congress may by law direct, provided that until such price is fixed by law, the postmaster-general shall have the power to determine the same.

Some or all of the roads contemplated in this act not having been constructed, Congress, by Act of May 5, 1864, 13 Stat. 66, c. 80, again granted lands to the State of Wisconsin for three different general lines of railroad, the line covered by section 3 of the act being the one in controversy. By this act, alternate odd-numbered sections for ten sections in width, instead of six, were granted,

upon the same terms and conditions as are contained in the act granting lands to said state to aid in the construction of railroads in said state, approved June 3, 1856.

The two acts, the words in each and not in the other being printed in italics, are as follows:

Act of June 3, 1856

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SEC. 1. That there be, and is hereby, granted to the State of Wisconsin for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a railroad from Madison, or Columbus, by the way of Portage City to the Saint Croix River or Lake between townships twenty-five and thirty-one, and from thence to the west end of Lake Superior, and to Bayfield, and also from Fond du Lac on Lake Winnebago, northerly to the state line, every alternate section of land designated by odd numbers for six sections in width on each side of said roads, respectively.

But in case it shall appear that the United States have, when the line[s] or route[s] of said roads [are] definitely fixed, sold any sections or parts thereof granted as aforesaid, or that the right of preemption has attached to the same, then it shall be lawful for any agent or agents, to be appointed by the governor of said state, to select, subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Interior, from the lands of the United States nearest to the tier of sections above specified, so much land in alternate sections, or parts of sections, as shall be equal to such lands as the United States have sold or otherwise appropriated, or to which the right of preemption has attached, as aforesaid, which lands (thus selected in lieu of those sold and to which preemption has attached as aforesaid, together with the sections and parts of sections designated by odd numbers as aforesaid, and appropriated as aforesaid) shall be held by the State of Wisconsin for the use and purpose aforesaid:

Provided that the lands to be so located shall in no case be further than fifteen miles from the line of the roads in each case, and selected for and on account of said roads:

Provided further that the lands hereby granted shall be exclusively applied in the construction of than road for which it was granted and selected, and shall be disposed of only as the work progresses, and the same shall be applied to no other purpose whatsoever:

And provided further that any and all lands reserved to the United States by any act of Congress for the purpose of aiding in any object of internal improvement, or in any manner for any purpose whatsoever, be, and the same are hereby, reserved to the United States from the operation of this act, except so far as it may be found necessary to locate the route of said railroads through such reserved lands, in which case the right of way only shall be granted, subject to the approval of the President of the United States.

SEC. 2. And be it further enacted that the sections and parts of sections of land which, by such grant, shall remain to the United States, within six miles on each side of said roads shall not be sold or less than double the minimum price of the public lands when sold; nor shall any of said lands become subject to private entry until the same have been first offered at public sale at the increased price.

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, that the said lands hereby granted to said state shall be subject to the disposal of the legislature thereof, for the purposes aforesaid, and no other, and the said railroads shall be and remain public highways for the use of the government of the United States free from toll or other charge upon the transportation of property or troops of the United States.

SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, that the lands hereby granted to said state shall be disposed of by said state only in manner following, that is to say that a quantity of land not exceeding one hundred and twenty sections, and included within a continuous length of twenty miles of roads, respectively, may be sold, and when the governor of said state shall certify to the Secretary of the Interior that any twenty continuous miles of either of said roads are completed, then another like quantity of land hereby granted may be sold, and so from time to time until said roads are completed, and if said roads are not completed within ten years, no further sales shall be made, and the land unsold shall revert to the United States.

SEC. 5. And be it further enacted that the United States mail shall be transported over said roads, under the direction of the Post Office Department at made, and the land unsold may, by law, direct, provided that, until such price is fixed by law, the Postmaster General shall have the power to determine the same.

Act of May 5, 1864

SEC. 1. [This section grants land to aid in the construction of a railroad from Saint Croix River or Lake or Lake to Lake Superior.]

SEC. 2. [This section grants land to aid in the construction of a railroad from Tomah to Saint Croix River or Lake.]

SEC. 3. And be it further enacted that there be, and is hereby, granted to the State of Wisconsin, for the purpose of aiding in the construction of a railroad from Portage City, Berlin, Doty's Island, or Fond du Lac, as said state may determine, in a northwestern direction, to Bayfield, and thence to Superior, on Lake Superior, every alternate section of public land, designated by odd numbers, for ten sections in width on each side of said road, upon the same terms and conditions as are contained in the act granting lands to said state to aid in the construction of railroads in said state, approved June three, eighteen hundred and fifty-six. But in case it shall appear that the United States have, when the line or route of said road is definitely fixed, sold, reserved, or otherwise disposed of any sections or parts thereof, granted as...

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