234 U.S. 669 (2014), Burke v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company

Citation:234 U.S. 669, 34 S.Ct. 907, 58 L.Ed. 1527
Party Name:Burke v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company
Case Date:June 22, 1914
Court:United States Supreme Court

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234 U.S. 669 (2014)

34 S.Ct. 907, 58 L.Ed. 1527



Southern Pacific Railroad Company

United States Supreme Court

June 22, 1914




The Act of July 27, 1866, making a grant of alternate odd numbered sections of public land to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company in aid of the construction of its main-line railroad, did not include mineral lands, but, on the contrary, excluded them from its operation

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and provided that the company should receive other lands as indemnity for them.

The administration of the grant, including the issue of patents following the construction of the road, was committed to the Land Department, of which the Secretary of the Interior is the supervising officer.

It was contemplated by the granting act that the mineral or nonmineral character of the lands should be determined by the Land Department, and that, depending upon the result, patents should issue or indemnity be allowed.

The patents were to be the legally appointed evidence that the lands described in them had passed to the company under the grant.

A patent issued under such a grant is to be taken, upon a collateral attack, as affording conclusive evidence of the nonmineral character of the land and of the regularity of the acts and proceedings resulting in its issue, and, upon a direct attack, as affording such presumptive evidence thereof as to require plain and convincing proof to overcome it.

If the land officers are induced by false proofs to issue such a patent for mineral lands, or if they issue it fraudulently or through mere inadvertence, a bill in equity on the part of the government will lie to cancel the patent and regain the title, or, in the like circumstances, a prior mineral claimant who had acquired such rights in the land as to entitle him to protection may maintain a bill to have the patentee declared a trustee for him; but such a patent is merely voidable, not void, and cannot be successfully attacked by a stranger who had no interest in the land at the time the patent was issued and was not prejudiced by it.

One who relocates land under the mining law (Rev.Stat., § 2324) by reason of the failure of a prior locator to perform the required annual assessment or development work is not in privity with such prior locator.

The officers of the Land Department are without authority to insert in patents exceptions not contemplated by law, and when they place unauthorized exceptions in patents, the exceptions are void.

An exception inserted in patents issued under the grant here under consideration to the effect that, if any of the lands described should be found to be mineral, the same should be excluded from the operation of the patents, is unauthorized and void, because the granting act contemplated that the patents should effectually and unconditionally pass the title.

An agreement between the railroad company and the land officers that such an exception in the patents should be effective is of no greater

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force as an estoppel than the exception itself, and the latter is of no force whatever.

The terms of the patent whereby the government transfers its title to public land are not open to negotiation or agreement. The patentee has no voice in the matter. It in no wise depends upon his consent or will. Neither can the land officer enter into any agreement upon the subject. They are not principals, but agents, of the law, and must heed only its will.

If the land officers enter into any forbidden arrangement whereby public land is transferred to one not entitled to it, the patent may be annulled at the suit of the government, but those officers cannot alter the effect which the law gives to a patent while it is outstanding. The joint resolution of June 28, 1870, relating to this grant did not authorize the use of any excepting clause in the patent.

The facts, which involve the construction and validity of patents for land issued to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company under the Land Grant Act of July 27, 1866, and the effect of provisions in the patents as to the effect of subsequent discovery of minerals, are stated in the opinion.

VANDEVANTER, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1910, Edmund Burke filed a bill in equity in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District

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of California against the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the Kern Trading & Oil Company, and several individuals wherein he sought a decree establishing certain rights claimed by him in five sections of land in Fresno County, California, and enjoining the defendants from asserting any right or interest therein. A cross-bill was filed by J. I. Lamprecht and other individual defendants, and the two corporate defendants demurred to both bills. The demurrers were sustained, and a decree was entered dismissing the bills for reasons assigned in an opinion announced the same day in Roberts v. Southern Pacific Co., 186 F. 934. The complainant and cross-complainants appealed to the circuit court of appeals, and it certified the case here under the Judicial Code, § 239, for instruction upon designated questions of law.

According to the certificate, the bill alleged, in substance, that in 1892, the five sections were public lands, and were located as placer mining claims under the mining laws of the United States, each location being preceded by a discovery of mineral within its limits; that, on May 9, 1892, the railroad company, with knowledge of these locations, made application at the local land office to have the five sections, with others, patented to it under the land grant made to it by the Act of July 27, 1866, 14 Stat. 292, c. 278, §§ 3, 4, 18, and the joint resolution of June 28, 1870, 16 Stat. 382, No. 87, and did then corruptly cause one Madden, its land agent, to make [34 S.Ct. 909] and present at such land office, in support of such application, a false and fraudulent affidavit stating that the application contained a correct list of lands inuring to the railroad company under its grant, and that the listed lands were vacant, unappropriated, and not interdicted, mineral, or reserved lands; that no notice of such application was given to any of the placer claimants, and no hearing was had in the local office or in the Land Department with the purpose of

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determining the character of the lands; that, on July 10, 1894, without any such investigation or determination, a patent was issued to the railroad company purporting to convey to it, among other lands, the five sections in controversy; that the patent contained a clause reading:

Excluding and excepting all mineral lands should any such be found in the tracts aforesaid, but this exclusion and exception, according to the terms of the statute, shall not be construed to include coal and iron lands;

that the railroad company accepted the patent and caused it to be recorded in Fresno County; that, in virtue of the patent, the railroad company claims to own all the lands described therein, including the five sections; that, in March, 1909, the original mineral claimants having failed to perform the required assessment or development work for the preceding year, the complainant and certain associates of his entered upon the five sections and relocated the same as placer mining claims under the mining laws of the United States, each of the new locations being preceded by a discovery of mineral within its limits; that the lands contain petroleum in commercial quantities, which makes them more valuable for mining than for agricultural purposes; that the complainant is the owner of an undivided one-tenth interest in the mining claims created by the new location, and that the oil company, although claiming as a lessee of the railroad company, is a mere instrument of the latter, being entirely owned, dominated, and controlled by it.

According to the certificate, the cross-bill set forth substantially a like state of facts, sought the same relief, and also contained the following allegation:

These cross-complainants further say and show unto the court that the said Southern Pacific Railroad Company, with full knowledge of all the facts and circumstances herein stated and alleged, did, for itself, its successors and assigns forever, accept and assent to, and submit to, and agree to

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be bound by, each and all of the provisions, stipulations, terms, conditions, restrictions, limitations, exclusions, and reservations in said act and joint resolution, and in said patent, or either or any of them contained, and so accepting the same and assenting and submitting thereto, and agreeing to be bound thereby, did receive and accept said alleged patent, and cause the same to be recorded in the office of the recorder of the County of Fresno, and State of California, and that said defendant, Southern Pacific Railroad Company, and all persons claiming any interest in said lands or any part thereof, under or through it by virtue of said act of Congress and joint resolution, and said patent, or any or either of them, are bound by all of said provisions, stipulations, terms, conditions, restrictions, limitations, exclusions, exceptions, and reservations, and are in equity and in conscience estopped to resist or deny the binding force and effect of same or any part or any thereof.

The questions propounded in the certificate are as follows:

FIRST. Did the said grant to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company include mineral lands which were known to be such at or prior to the date of the patent of July 10, 1894?

SECOND. Does a patent to a railroad company under a grant which excludes mineral...

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