260 U.S. 545 (2020), Mason v. United States

Citation:260 U.S. 545, 43 S.Ct. 200, 67 L.Ed. 396
Party Name:Mason v. United States
Case Date:January 02, 1923
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 545

260 U.S. 545 (2020)

43 S.Ct. 200, 67 L.Ed. 396



United States

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 2, 1923




1. The order of December 15, 1908, whereby, to conserve the public interests and in aid of contemplated legislation, specified public lands in Louisiana were "withdrawn from settlement and entry, or other form of appropriation," was within the power of the Executive. P. 553. United States v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U.S. 459.

2. The words "other form of appropriation" in this order include appropriations by mining locations. P. 553.

3. The ejusdem generis rule is a rule of construction resorted to only as an aid in ascertaining the meaning of doubtful words and phrases; it will not be so employed as to render general words in a statute meaningless by assigning them to a genus fully occupied by the specific terms employed. P. 553.

4. Defendants who entered upon parcels of the withdrawn lands under mining locations, and extracted oil in "moral good faith," in the honest though mistaken belief that the order of withdrawal was void, were liable in damages under the laws of Louisiana only for the value of the oil taken after deducting the cost of drilling

Page 546

and equipping and operating the wells by means of which it was extracted. P. 555.

5. A specific finding of fact, made by a master after seeing and hearing the witnesses, and supported by evidence, will be accepted here. P. 556.

6. Location of one hundred and sixty acres of oil land by an association of eight persons and lease of the tract on the same day to a corporation, in pursuance of an understanding had prior to the location, is not fraudulent under the federal mining laws. P. 557.

7. A general rule of state statutory law for measuring damages in cases of conversion is binding on the federal courts sitting in the state in suits in equity involving title to land there situate and seeking to restrain continuing trespasses upon it, in which damages for conversion of oil wrongfully extracted from the land are claimed as an incident to the equitable relief. P. 557.

8. The enforcement of such a statute in an equity suit does not trammel or impair the equity jurisdiction of the federal courts. P. 558.

9. Revised Statutes, § 721, providing that the laws of the states shall be rules of decision in trials at common law in the courts of the United States, is merely declarative of the rule that would exist in its absence, and does not by implication exclude such laws as rules of decision in equity suits. P. 558.

10. Where some of a number of joint trespassers extract oil from land (in Louisiana) and pay royalties thereon to the others who share none of the cost of mining, all are liable to the landowner for the amount of the royalties without, any deduction of expenses, but a decree against all for the royalties and against the operating trespassers for the net proceeds of the oil extracted, insofar as it allows a double recovery of the royalties, is erroneous. P. 559.

273 F. 135, 142, reversed.

Appeals from decrees of the circuit court of appeals affirming with modifications decrees of the district court in suits brought by the United States to confirm its title to various tracts of public land in Louisiana, to restrain continuing trespasses, and to secure accountings for the value of oil and gas wrongfully extracted.

Page 551

SUTHERLAND, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases, involving the same questions, were consolidated for trial in the district court, as well as for hearing

Page 552

on appeal in the circuit court of appeals, and argued together here.

The United States, as plaintiff, brought separate suits in equity in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana against the several groups of appellants (defendants in the bills) to have its title to various parcels of land confirmed, possession thereof restored, and defendants enjoined from setting up claims thereto, extracting oil or other minerals therefrom, or going upon or in any manner using the same. There was in addition a prayer for an accounting in respect of the oil and gas removed from the lands by the defendants. The cases were referred to a master, and, upon his report, the district court entered decrees in favor of the plaintiff in all the cases, from which appeals were taken by defendants and cross-appeals by plaintiff to the circuit court of appeals. That court affirmed the decrees generally, but reversed the trial court insofar as it had allowed drilling and operating costs as a credit against the value of the oil extracted and converted by the defendants, respectively. 273 F. 135, 142. The cases come here by appeal.

The lands in question were public lands of the United States, and the only claim thereto asserted by the defendants was based upon locations purporting to have been made under the mining laws. The lands were withdrawn on December 15, 1908, by an executive order which reads:

To secure the public interests, and, in aid of such legislation as may hereafter be proposed or recommended, the public lands in townships 15 to 23 north and ranges 10 to 16 west, Louisiana meridian, Natchitoches Land Office, Louisiana, are, subject to existing valid claims, withdrawn from settlement and entry, or other form of appropriation.

After the promulgation of this order, at various times, mining locations were made [43 S.Ct. 202] upon the several parcels of

Page 553

land by the respective groups of defendants or persons in privity with them. These locations, it will be assumed for the purposes of the case, complied with the requirements of the laws relating to the acquisition of mining rights. Before the locations were made, the question had been submitted by some of the defendants to counsel learned in the law, who advised that the President was without authority to make the withdrawal, and that the order, in any event, did not include appropriations of lands valuable for their deposits of mineral substances. All the locations, it is claimed, were made by the defendants in the honest belief that the order not only was made without authority, but that it did not purport to preclude appropriations under the mining laws.

Whatever legitimate doubts existed at the time of the locations respecting the validity of the executive order were resolved by the subsequent decision of this Court in United States v. Midwest Oil Co., 236 U.S. 459, where it was held that a similar order, issued in 1909, was within the power of the executive. Upon the authority of that case, the order here in question must be held valid.

Passing this, it is insisted that the order does not apply to the cases here presented. The point sought to be made rests upon the rule of statutory construction that words may be so associated as to qualify the meaning which they would have standing apart. Here, it is said, the general words of the order "or other form of appropriation" must be read in connection with the specific words "settlement and entry" immediately preceding, and that, so read, they must be restricted to appropriations of a similar kind with those specifically enumerated. The words "settlement and entry," it is said, apply only to the act of settling upon the soil and making entry at a land office, as, for example, under the homestead laws; that mining lands are acquired not by settlement or entry, but by location and development, and that this

Page 554

process is not covered by the words "other form of appropriation," limited, as they must be, by the associated specific words, to those forms of appropriation which are akin to a settlement and entry. The rule is one well established and frequently invoked, but it is, after all, a rule of construction, to be resorted to only as an aid to the ascertainment of the meaning of doubtful words and phrases, and not to control or limit their meaning contrary to the true intent. It cannot be employed to render general words meaningless, since that would...

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