Marquez v. Frisbie

Citation25 L.Ed. 800,101 U.S. 473
Decision Date01 October 1879
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

ERROR to the Supreme Court of the State of California.

The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.

The case was argued by Mr. Richard T. Merrick for the plaintiff in error.

No counsel appeared for the defendant in error.

MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

The original suit was begun by a petition of the plaintiff in error in the proper court of the State of California, setting forth several reasons why the decision of the Department of the Interior against his claim as a pre-emptor, and in favor of Frisbie and others, to a certain quarter-section of land, was erroneous, and praying a decree of the court declaring him to be its true owner and his right to the legal title paramount. The case was heard in the inferior State court on a demurrer to this petition, which was sustained, and the judgment there rendered against plaintiff was affirmed by the Supreme Court.

The grounds principally, if not exclusively, relied on by the counsel of plaintiff in this court, who so faithfully and earnestly presented his case, are, 1st, That the Land Department mistook the law of the case and thereby deprived plaintiff of a vested right in the land. 2d, That their decision was obtained by fraud.

The petition of the plaintiff, however, is so badly drawn, and has so many defects, that, sitting here to revise the judgment of two courts of the State of California, we are not able to discover in the petition that the questions argued here are so presented as to enable the court to decide them.

There are also objections besides this fatal to the complaint and the relief asked under it.

One of them is that the principal relief sought, that without which any other would be imperfect, is, that defendants may be declared to hold the land in trust for plaintiff, and compelled to convey the same accordingly. This undoubtedly means the legal title to the land, for he alleges that he was in actual possession at the time of instituting the suit and for a great many years before. But the bill does not show that the defendants, or either of them, ever had the legal title. On the contrary, it is a necessary conclusion from the allegations of the bill that the legal title is in the United States. After referrring to the decision of the Secretary of the Interior against his claim, the petition says, that, 'in pursuance of this decision, an order was issued authorizing the defendants and other purchasers of the Vallejo title to enter the lands claimed by them; and the said defendants have entered, and will be enabled to receive a patent for, the said quarter-section.' It plainly appears from this, first, that defendants had not the legal title; second, that it was in the United States; and, third, that the matter was still in fieri, and under the contr l of the land officers.

Nothing in record of the case before us gives evidence that any further steps in that department have been taken in the case.

We have repeatedly held that the courts will not interfere with the officers of the government while in the discharge of their duties in disposing of the public lands, either by injunction or mandamus. Litchfield v. Register and Receiver, 9 Wall. 552; Gaines v. Thompson, 7 id. 347; The Secretary v. McGarrahan, 9 id. 298.

And we think it would be quite as objectionable to permit a State court, while such a question was under the consideration and within the control of the executive departments, to take jurisdiction of the case by reason of their control of the parties concerned, and render decree in advance of the action of the government, which would render its patents a nullity when issued.

After the United States has parted with its title, and the individual has become vested with it, the equities subject to which he holds it may be enforced, but not before. Johnson v. Towsley, 13 id. 72; Shepley v. Cowan, 91 U. S. 330.

We did not deny the right of the courts to deal with the possession of the land prior to the issue of the patent, or to enforce contracts between the parties concerning the land. But it is impossible thus to transfer a title which is yet in the United States.

If, however, we could suppose that defendants had obtained the patent which the secretary has decided that they are entitled to, that patent and the order on which it issued has in its favor all the presumptions which such an instrument necessarily carries, to which is to be added in this case the plaintiff's allegation that it was founded on a decision made after full contest and repeated hearings, by appeal and otherwise, by the officers to whom the law has specially confided the adjudication of that class of cases.

The rule which governs the courts in the effort to correct any error in such decision has been so repeatedly stated here as to leave no room for doubt or misconstruction.

That principle is that 'the decision of the officers of the land department, made within the scope of their authority, on questions of this kind, is, in general, conclusive everywhere, except when considered by way of appeal within that department; and that, as to the facts on which their decision is based, in the absence of fraud or mistake, that decision is conclusive even in courts of justice, when the title afterwards comes in question. But that in this class of cases, as in all others, there exists in the courts of equity the jurisdiction to correct mistakes, to relieve against frauds and impositions, and in cases where it is clear that these officers have, by a mistake of the law, given to one man the land which, on the undisputed facts, belonged to another, to give appropriate relief.' Moore v. Robbins, 96 U. S. 530, 535; Shepley v. Cowan, supra; Johnson v. Towsley, supra.

As we have already said, the argument of counsel is that the bill which was demurred to makes a case of mistake and of fraud and imposition within...

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