331 U.S. 256 (1947), 429, United States v. Fullard-Leo

Docket Nº:No. 429
Citation:331 U.S. 256, 67 S.Ct. 1287, 91 L.Ed. 1474
Party Name:United States v. Fullard-Leo
Case Date:May 12, 1947
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 256

331 U.S. 256 (1947)

67 S.Ct. 1287, 91 L.Ed. 1474

United States



No. 429

United States Supreme Court

May 12, 1947

Argued February 12, 1947




1. On the facts of this case, including both an unbroken chain of private conveyances and a claim of right to exclusive possession since 1862, when possession of Palmyra Island was taken by respondents' predecessors in interest in the name of the King of Hawaii, and on the presumption of a lost grant, the Government's claim of title to Palmyra Island as successor to the Kingdom and Republic of Hawaii is denied, and fee simple title to the island is quieted in respondents -- notwithstanding their failure to show actual occupancy of this isolated island in the Pacific Ocean except for intermittent periods aggregating less than two and one-half years out of 77 years since the origin of their claim of title. Pp. 269-281.

2. A resolution adopted by the King and Cabinet Council of Hawaii in 1862 authorizing respondents' predecessors in interest to take possession of the island in the name of the King of Hawaii and the formalities of annexation are construed as requiring only that sovereignty over the island be acquired by the King, and not as requiring that title to the island should vest in the King or as being

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otherwise inconsistent with a presumption that a grant of title to the island was issued to respondents' predecessors in interest. Pp. 260-265.

3. Under the laws in effect in Hawaii at the time of the annexation of Palmyra Island in 1862, both the King and the Minister of the Interior with the authority of the King in the Cabinet Council had power to convey the lands to private citizens. Hawaiian Civil Code, 1859, §§ 39-48; Hawaiian Act of January 3, 1865, Rev.Laws, Hawaii, 1905, p. 1226, § 3. Pp. 266-269.

4. This Court takes judicial notice of the laws of Hawaii prior to its annexation as a part of our domestic laws. P. 269.

5. The rules under which the Hawaiian people lived under the monarchy or republic define, for the sovereign of today, the rights acquired during those periods. P. 269.

6. Hawaiian law, as it existed before the annexation of the Territory, is controlling on rights then acquired in land. P. 269.

7. In matters of local law, the federal courts defer to the decisions of the territorial courts of Hawaii; but, where a claimed title to public lands of the United States is involved, that is a federal question, and the federal courts will construe the law for themselves, and are not bound to follow Hawaiian decisions. Pp. 269-270.

8. The presumption of a lost grant to land recognizes that lapse of time may cure the neglect or failure to secure the proper muniments of title, even though the lost grant may not have been in fact executed. P. 270.

9. The rule applies to claims to land held adversely to the sovereign. Pp. 270-272.

10. The law of the Territory of Hawaii recognizes and has applied the doctrine of the lost grant in controversies between the Territory and a claimant to government land. Pp. 272-273.

11. Where, as in this case, there was power in the King or the officials of the Kingdom of Hawaii to convey a title to Palmyra Island during the years immediately following its annexation to the Kingdom of Hawaii and prior to many of the private conveyances in respondents' chain of title, the doctrine of a lost grant may be applied, in suitable circumstances, and its existence presumed in favor of respondents' predecessors in title. P. 273.

12. In order for the doctrine of a lost grant to be applicable, the possession must be under a claim of right, actual, open and exclusive. P. 273.

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13. A claim for government lands stands upon no different principle in theory, so long as authority exists in government officials to execute the patent, grant, or conveyance; but, as practical matter, it requires a higher degree of proof. Pp. 273-274.

14. The sufficiency of actual and open possession of property to justify the presumption of a lost grant is to be judged in the light of the character and location of the property. P. 279.

15. While uninterrupted and long continuing possession of a kind indicating the ownership of the fee is necessary to create the presumption of a lost grant, the rule does not require a constant actual occupancy where the character of the property does not lend itself to such use . P. 281.

156 F.2d 756 affirmed.

After Congress had authorized construction of naval aviation facilities on Palmyra Island by the Act of April 25, 1939, 53 Stat. 590, the Government sued to quiet title to the island. The District Court dismissed the suit. 66 F.Supp. 774. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Hawaiian Kingdom acquired title in 1862, and that such title was ceded to the United States in 1898. 133 F.2d 743. This Court denied certiorari. 319 U.S. 748. On remand, the District Court denied the Government's claim and quieted title to the island in respondents. 66 F.Supp. 782. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. 156 F.2d 756. This Court granted certiorari. 329 U.S. 697. Affirmed, p. 281.

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REED, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

This writ of certiorari was allowed to review a decree of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirming a decree of the District Court of the United States for the District of Hawaii, 329 U.S. 697. The United States began the present proceedings by a petition, filed in the District Court, to quiet title in it to a group of islets in the Pacific long known as Palmyra Island. Palmyra was annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii on February 26, 1862, and the United States claims that it remained a part of the governmental lands of Hawaii and passed to the United States by the Joint Resolution of Congress of July 7, 1898, 30 Stat. 750, which annexed Hawaii to the United States and accepted for the United States all public, Government, or Crown lands and all other public property then belonging to the Republic of Hawaii.1 The lands and sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaii previously had passed directly to the Republic of Hawaii through the intervening Provisional Government.

Palmyra Island is around one thousand miles south of the main Hawaiian group. It is the first considerable body of land in that direction, and lies between the Hawaiian Islands and Samoa. The Palmyra group is a coral covered atoll of about fifty islets, some with trees, and extends -- reefs, intervening water and land -- 5 2/3 sea miles in an easterly and westerly direction and 1 1/3 sea miles northwardly and southwardly. The observation spot for the map in the case is Latitude 5° 52' 18" N., Longitude 162° 05' 55" W. The British islands of Washington, Fanning, and Christmas lie within a 500-mile radius to the southeast of Palmyra. Use of the islands by the respondents and their predecessors in the title was intermittent. The question of title became important in 1939, when Congress authorized the construction at Palmyra of naval

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aviation facilities and appropriated $1,100,000 for their construction. 53 Stat. 590. Negotiations with these respondents, as owners, were undertaken in 1938 by the Navy Department for a lease of the property, but were not completed. This suit was filed in 1939.

There have been two trials of this case. The records of both are before us, as the record of the first trial was made a part of the second. Certain contemporaneous written evidence of the early transactions was produced.

The findings of fact in the first trial show that two Hawaiian citizens, Johnson Wilkinson and Zenas Bent, made a representation concerning Palmyra Island to the King and the Cabinet Council. The minutes of a meeting of the Council which took place at Honolulu on February 26, 1862, are extant. The "representation" has not been found. The Council minutes show the following:

P. Kamehameha read a Representation from Z Bent & Mr. Wilkinson about the Island Palmyra, requesting that the Island should be considered a Hawaiian possession & be placed under the Hawiian Flag.

[67 S.Ct. 1289]

After some discussion, it pleased the King to direct the Minister of the Interior to grant what the Petitioners apply for, following the precedent of the Resolution regarding the Island Cornwallis & without exceeding the same.

The action of the Council was communicated to Wilkinson and Bent through a letter by the Minister of the Interior on March 1, 1862. In the letter, it was said that the Hawaiian Government consented to the taking possession of Palmyra "for the purpose of increasing the trade and Commerce of this Kingdom, as well as offering protection to the interests of its subjects." Accompanying the letter was a commission empowering Bent "to take possession in our name of Palmyra Island." Explicit directions were

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contained in the commission that Bent was to sign a declaration and leave it in a bottle buried at the foot of a pole wrapped with the Hawaiian flag. The commission was signed jointly by the King and the Minister of Interior. On June 16, 1862, Bent reported that he had carried out the commission and left a paper as directed. In the same report, Bent told of the trees on the island and the kind of vegetables that would grow. He said that he had erected a dwelling house on the island and a curing house for biche de mer, a kind of edible sea slug that is prized in the Orient. It also said that he had left five men on the island and proposed to return in about ten days. Thereupon, the Minister of the Interior duly issued a proclamation on June 18, as follows:

Whereas, On the 15th day...

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