Best v. Humboldt Placer Mining Company

Decision Date14 January 1963
Docket NumberNo. 52,52
Citation371 U.S. 334,83 S.Ct. 379,9 L.Ed.2d 350
PartiesRaymond R. BEST et al., Petitioners, v. HUMBOLDT PLACER MINING COMPANY and Del De Rosier
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Roger P. Marquis, Washington, D.C., for petitioners.

Charles L. Gilmore, Sacramento, Cal., for respondents.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States sued in the District Court to condemn certain property needed for the construction of the Trinity River Dam and Reservoir in California,1 to obtain immediate possession of it, and to secure title to it, the complaint asking that the United States be allowed to reserve authority to have the validity of mining claims determined in administrative proceedings before the Bureau of Land Management of the Department of the Interior. The District Court allowed the United States a writ of possession; but no other issues in the action have been determined. See 185 F.Supp. 290.

The United States later instituted a contest proceeding in the local land office of the Bureau seeking an administrative determination of the validity of respondents' mining claims2 and alleged that the land embraced within respondents' claims is nonmineral in character and that minerals have not been found within the limits of the claims in sufficient quantities to constitute a valid discovery. Respondents, who had 30 days to answer the administrative complaint or have the allegations taken as confessed,3 brought the present suit to enjoin the officials of the Department of the Interior from proceeding with the administrative action. The District Court granted summary judgment for the United States. 185 F.Supp. 290. The Court of Appeals reversed, 293 F.2d 553. The case is here on a petition for certiorari which we granted. 368 U.S. 983, 82 S.Ct. 600, 7 L.Ed.2d 522.

We deal here with a unique form of property. A mining claim on public lands is a possessory interest in land that is 'mineral in character' and as respects which discovery 'within the limits of the claim' has been made. Cameron v. United States, 252 U.S. 450, 456, 40 S.Ct. 410, 411, 64 L.Ed. 659. The discovery must be of such a character that 'a person of ordinary prudence would be justified in the further expenditure of his labor and means, with a reasonable prospect of success, in developing a valuable mine.' Castle v. Womble, 19 L.D. 455, 457; Chrisman v. Miller, 197 U.S. 313, 322, 25 S.Ct. 468, 49 L.Ed. 770; Cameron v. United States, supra, 252 U.S. p. 459, 40 S.Ct. p. 412. A locator who does not carry his claim to patent does not lose his mineral claim, though he does take the risk that his claim will no longer support the issuance of a patent. United States v. Houston, 66 L.D. 161, 165. It must be shown before a patent issues that at the time of the application for patent 'the claim is valuable for minerals,' worked-out claims not qualifying. United States v. Logomarcini, 60 L.D. 371, 373.

Respondents' mining claims are unpatented, the title to the lands in controversy still being in the United States. The claims are, however, valid against the United States if there has been a discovery of mineral within the limits of the claim, if the lands are still mineral, and if other statutory requirements have been met.4 Cameron v. United States, supra. The determination of the validity of claims against the public lands was entrusted to the General Land-Office in 1812 (2 Stat. 716) and transferred to the Department of the Interior on its creation in 1849. 9 Stat. 395.5 Since that time, the Department has been granted plenary authority over the administration of public lands, including mineral lands; and it has been given broad authority to issue regulations concerning them.6 Cameron v. United States, supra—an opinion written by Mr. Justice Van Devanter, who, as Assistant Attorney General for the Interior Department from 1897 to 1903, did more than any other person to give character and distinction to the administration of the public lands illustrates the special role of the Department of the Interior in that field. Cameron claimed a valid mineral discovery on public lands. His claim was rejected in administrative proceedings. Cameron, however, would not vacate the land and the United States sued to oust him. The Court said:

'By general statutory provisions the execution of the laws regulating the acquisition of rights in the public lands and the general care of these lands is confided to the Land Department, as a special tribunal; and the Secretary of the Interior, as the head of the department, is charged with seeing that this authority is rightly exercised to the end that valid claims may be recognized, invalid ones eliminated and the rights of the public preserved. * * *

'A mining location which has not gone to patent is of no higher quality and no more immune from attack and investigation than are unpatented claims under the homestead and kindred laws. If valid, it gives to the claimant certain exclusive possessory rights, and so do homestead and desert claims. But no right arises from an invalid claim of any kind. All must conform to the law under which they are initiated; otherwise they work an unlawful private appropriation in derogation of the rights of the public.

'Of course, the Land Department has no power to strike down any claim arbitrarily, but so long as the legal title remains in the government it does have power, after proper notice and upon adequate hearing, to determine whether the claim is valid and, if it be found invalid, to declare it null and void.' 252 U.S. 450, 459—460, 40 S.Ct. 410, 412.

'Due process in such case implies notice and a hearing. But this does not require that the hearing must be in the courts, or forbid an inquiry and determination in the land department.' Orchard v. Alexander, 157 U.S. 372, 383, 15 S.Ct. 635, 639, 39 L.Ed. 737. If a patent has not issued, controversies over the claims 'should be solved by appeal to the land department, and not to the courts.'7 Brown v. Hitchcock, 173 U.S. 473, 477, 19 S.Ct. 485, 487, 43 L.Ed. 772. And see Northern Pacific R. Co. v. McComas, 250 U.S. 387, 392, 39 S.Ct. 546, 548, 63 L.Ed. 1049.

The Court of Appeals wrote nothing in derogation of these principles. It concluded, however, that since the United States went into the District Court to condemn these property interests and to get immediate possession, the validity of the claims was, of necessity, left to judicial determination. Its conclusion rested primarily on Rule 71A of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 28 U.S.C.A. That Rule, after describing the way in which the issue of compensation shall be determined, concludes with the sentence 'Trial of all issues shall otherwise be by the court.'

Yet courts that try issues sometimes wait until the administrative agency that has special competence in the field has ruled on them. The controversies within the Court over the appropriateness of that procedure in given situations is well known, though there is no dispute over the soundness of the Abilene doctrine, adumbrated by Chief Justice White in Texas & Pac. R. Co. v. Abilene Cotton Oil Co., 204 U.S. 426, 27 S.Ct. 350, 51 L.Ed. 553. It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate case for invocation of the jurisdiction of an administrative agency for determination of one of the issues involved in a judicial proceeding. Cf. Thompson v. Magnolia Petroleum Co., 309 U.S. 478, 60 S.Ct. 628, 84 L.Ed. 876; Thompson v.Texas Mexican R. Co., 328 U.S. 134, 146—151, 66 S.Ct. 937, 944—947, 90 L.Ed. 1132. Congress has entrusted the Department of the Interior with the management of the public domain and prescribed the process by which claims against the public domain may be perfected.8 The United States, which holds legal title to the lands, plainly can prescribe the procedure which any claimant must follow to acquire rights in...

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