247 U.S. 310 (1918), 75, United States v. St. Paul, Minneapolis

Docket Nº:No. 75
Citation:247 U.S. 310, 38 S.Ct. 525, 62 L.Ed. 1130
Party Name:United States v. St. Paul, Minneapolis
Case Date:June 03, 1918
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 310

247 U.S. 310 (1918)

38 S.Ct. 525, 62 L.Ed. 1130

United States

v.

St. Paul, Minneapolis

No. 75

United States Supreme Court

June 3, 1918

& Manitoba Railway Company

Argued January 15, 16, 1918

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Act of March 2, 1896, c. 39, 29 Stat. 42, limiting the time within which suits may be brought to vacate land patents, contains a proviso

that no suit shall be brought or maintained, nor shall recovery be had for lands or the value thereof, that were certified or patented in lieu of other lands covered by a grant which were lost or relinquished by the grantee in consequence of the failure of the government or its officers to withdraw the same from sale or entry.

Held, that the proviso was a curative measure referring only to lands patented before the enactment, and was no protection for a patent procured afterwards by fraud.

The general principle underlying the strict construction of statutes of limitation as applied to the government, viz., that the public interest should not be prejudiced by negligence or default of public officials, applies with peculiar force in the construction of a provision which operates to bar absolutely the recovery of the value of land as well as the land itself, in favor of the immediate recipient of a fraudulent patent no less than a bona fide purchaser.

In the present case, resort to this principle and to the legislative history of the proviso, added to its apparent independence and the extraordinary and unreasonable effects of applying it to future cases, overweigh the general rule of prospective construction and the fact of immediate association with prospective provisions.

The equity of a statute barring equitable relief for fraud and mistake is on the side of a strict construction.

The remarks of the chairman of a congressional committee, referring to matters of common knowledge in explanation of an amendment offered by him to a bill which he has previously reported, may be considered as throwing light upon the subject matter of the amendment for the purpose of solving an ambiguity.

225 F. 27 reversed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 311

PITNEY, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE PITNEY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This was a suit by the United States to annul a patent issued June 24, 1907, to the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway Company (referred to below as the Manitoba Company), for certain lands in the State of Montana upon the ground of fraud and mistake -- fraud on the part of the agents of the company in representing that the land was nonmineral in character and mistake on the part of the officers of the Land Department in failing to notify the register and receiver of the local land office that the lands had been classified as mineral and the classification sustained by the Secretary of the Interior under the act of February 26, 1895, c. 131, 28 Stat. 683. The district court granted a motion to dismiss the bill upon the ground that the suit was barred by the proviso of § 1 of the Act of March 2, 1896, c. 39, 29 Stat. 42, and its decision was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals, 225 F. 27.

It appears that, by act of March 3, 1857, c. 99, 11 Stat. 195, certain public lands were granted to the territory of Minnesota for the purpose of aiding in the construction of railroads, and the Manitoba Company afterwards succeeded to the rights and privileges of the territory under the granting act. At the time of the grant, the Missouri River formed the western boundary of the territory, but in the following year, the State of Minnesota was admitted into the Union, with its western boundary fixed on a line some distance east of that river (Act of May 11, 1858, ch. 31, 11 Stat. 285), the excluded land being

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left to become a part of the Territory of Dakota (Act March 2, 1861, c. 86, 12 Stat. 239), afterwards admitted as the states of North Dakota and South Dakota. After the admission of Minnesota, the Land Department, in the administration of the land grant, rejected the claim of the Manitoba Company to lands within the limits of the grant but without the limits of that state, and recognized the rights of settlers and purchasers to Dakota lands within the limits of the grant. In St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Ry. Co. v. Phelps (1890), 137 U.S. 528, this Court set aside the departmental construction and sustained the company's claim to the Dakota lands. To obviate the resulting hardships to settlers and patentees, Congress passed an Act of August 5, 1892, c. 382, 27 Stat. 390, providing that the Secretary of the Interior should cause to be prepared and delivered to the Manitoba Company a list of the lands claimed by purchasers or occupants, and that the company should be permitted to select in lieu of these

an equal quantity of nonmineral public lands, so classified as nonmineral at the time of actual government survey . . . not reserved and to which no adverse right or claim shall have attached or have been initiated at the time of the making of such selection lying within any state into or through which the railway owned by said railway company runs, to the extent of the lands so relinquished and released.

The Montana lands here in question were selected by the company in March, 1906, and patented to it in June, 1907, in lieu of Dakota lands relinquished by the company pursuant to its acceptance of the Act of 1892.

There is no question but that the bill of complaint sets forth sufficient grounds of fraud and mistake to warrant the annulment of the patent were it not for the bar set up under the act of March 2, 1896, and whether that bar applies is the sole matter presented for decision upon this appeal.

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The act is entitled "An act to provide for the extension of he time within which suits may be brought to vacate and annul and patents, and for other purposes," and its first section reads as follows:

Be it enacted . . . that suits by the United States to vacate and annul any patent to lands heretofore erroneously issued under a railroad or wagon road grant shall only be brought within five years from the passage of this act, and suits to vacate and annul patents hereafter issued shall only be brought within six years after the date of the issuance of such patents, and the limitation of section eight of chapter five hundred and sixty-one of the acts of the second session of the Fifty-First Congress and amendments thereto1 is extended accordingly as to the patents herein referred to. But no patent to any lands held by a bona fide purchaser shall be vacated or annulled, but the right and title of such purchaser is hereby confirmed: Provided, that no suit shall be brought or maintained, nor shall recovery be had for lands or the value thereof, that were certified or patented in lieu of other lands covered by a grant which were lost or relinquished by the grantee in consequence of the failure of the government or its officers to withdraw the same from sale or entry.

Laying aside other questions raised by the government, we have reached the conclusion that, having regard to the general principle which requires a strict construction [38 S.Ct. 527] to be given to legislation in derogation of the public right, and in view of the legislative history of this particular enactment, the proviso must be given the effect of a curative measure confined to lands theretofore patented, and not granting dispensation for frauds or mistakes thereafter occurring.

It will be observed that the proviso is not a mere statute of limitation, but an absolute bar of suits by the United

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States; not merely of suits to vacate and annul patents, but of suits to recover either the land or the value thereof; not merely in favor of bona fide purchasers, but also of the immediate recipient of an unlawful certification or patent. The general principle of public policy applicable to all governments, that the public interest should not be prejudiced by the negligence or default of public officers, which underlies the rule of strict construction for statutes of limitation, applies with peculiar force to a statute of this character. United States v. Knight, 14 Pet. 301, 315; Gibson v. Chouteau, 13 Wall. 92, 99; United States v. Thompson, 98 U.S. 486, 489; Fink v. O'Neil, 106 U.S. 272, 281; United States v. Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Ry. Co., 118 U.S. 120, 125; United States v. Whited & Wheless, 246 U.S. 552.

If the language of the proviso stood alone:

That no suit shall be brought or maintained, nor shall recovery be had for lands or...

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