United States v. Donnell

Citation303 U.S. 501,58 S.Ct. 708,82 L.Ed. 980
Decision Date28 March 1938
Docket NumberNo. 487,487
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 501-503 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Homer S. Cummings, Atty. Gen., and Carl McFarland, Asst. Atty. Gen., for the United States.

Messrs. William Stanley, of Washington, D.C., and James E. Kelby, of Los Angeles, Cal., for respondents.

Mr. Justice STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves the validity of the title of the United States to a part of Mare Island in San Francisco Bay which was reserved for public purposes by Presidential Proclamation in 1850, was selected by the Secretary as a navy yard pursuant to act of Congress, was reserved for that purpose by Presidential Order in 1853, and since 1854 has been so used.

The lands in question are in the area acquired as a result of the Mexican War by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, July 4, 1848, 9 Stat. 922, which guaranteed the property rights of Mexicans in the annexed territory. The United States claims under deed to it in 1853 by Bissell and Aspinwall and another, who derived their title under grant of May 20, 1841, by Alvarado, Mexican Governor of California, to Castro, a Mexican citizen, of the island La Yegu (Mare Island) 'in all its extent.' Respondents claim under a patent issued by California to Darlington in 1857, purporting to convey the land in question as a part of the swamp or overflowed lands granted to the state by the Swamp Lands Act of Congress, Sept. 28, 1850, c. 84, 9 Stat. 519, 43 U.S.C.A. §§ 982—984.

Upon the military occupation of California during the Mexican War the United States military commander had proclaimed officially that Mexican land titles would receive due recognition by the United States,1 and article 8 of the Treaty of 1848 with Mexico declared that the property rights of Mexicans in the annexed territory should be 'inviolably respected.' After the admission of California to statehood, September 9, 1850, 9 Stat. 452, Congress adopted the Mexican Claims Act of March 3, 1851, 9 Stat. 631, which established a Board of Land Commissioners with authority, upon petition of those claiming under Mexican or Spanish grants of land in the annexed territory, to pass upon the validity of the grants. Right to a review of the Board's determination by the District Court, and the Supreme Court of the United States, was allowed the claimants and the Government. By section 12 of the Act of August 31, 1852, 10 Stat. 76, 99, the Attorney General was given authority over appeals from decisions of the Board adverse to the interests of the United States.

Bissell and Aspinwall, the grantors of the United States, filed their petition before the Board, seeking confirmation of their title under the Castro grant of May 20, 1841. After hearing evidence the Board confirmed their title by decree of May 8, 1855. Upon appeal by the United States to the District Court for Northern California, the decree of the Board was affirmed. Appeal by the Government to the Supreme Court of the United States, allowed by the District Court April 1, 1857, was dismissed by the government in the same year. The decree of the District Court was not signed or entered until a decree nunc pro tunc as of March 2, 1857, was signed, filed and entered on April 15, 1930.

While the proceedings were still pending before the Board, the claimants, Bissell and Aspinwall, on December 15, 1852, executed a contract to sell Mare Island to the United States, and on January 4, 1853, for a consideration of $83,491, they joined in a deed to the United States, without covenants except for further assurance. The deed purported to convey Mare Island, 'including all the Tule or low land and marsh belonging to the same or which has ever been reputed or claimed to belong to the same. * * *' On February 28, 1853, they executed a bond in favor of the United States in the sum of $200,000, conditioned upon the validity of their contract and the conveyance of 'the entire and absolute fee simple Estate in the said tract of land known as Mare Island.' The bond recited that they 'shall at all times hereafter indemnify and save harmless the United States against any claim or title to the said tract called Mare Island and its appurtenances which may be set up by or through any person or persons claiming under Victor Castro and his assigns,' and that they should 'also indemnify and save harmless the United States against any adverse claim or title in any other person or persons or body politic which may within two years from the date hereof, be made and thereafter be successfully established.'

The 1857 California patent to Darlington was not recorded until June 6, 1879, when one Sawyer appears to have acquired the Darlington claim. See Sawyer v. Osterhaus, D.C., 212 F. 765, 767. The Secretary of the Interior having found that the lands in question were swamp lands within the Swamp Lands Act of 1850, the respondents in 1928 by mandamus compelled the Secretary to certify the lands for patent to the State of California. The court, in awarding the relief sought, at the same time declared with reference to the contentions made here, 'the mere issuance of patent to California determines no legal or equitable right of the United States in the premises.' Work v. United States ex rel. O'Donnell, 57 App.D.C. 309, 23 F.2d 136, 138.

The present suit was brought by the United States in the District Court for Northern California to quiet its title. Respondents, by their answer, put in issue the Government's ownership of the lands in question and asserted their title as tenants in common under the Darlington grant. They specifically challenged the existence and validity of the Castro grant, the validity of the decrees of confirmation of the title of Bissell and Aspinwall, and any prescriptive title of the United States. They prayed, as affirmative relief, that their title be quieted, and in support of their prayer alleged that the lands in question were not embraced in the Castro grant and also were swamp lands which had passed to California under the Swamp Lands Act.

The trial court made findings of fact and reached conclusions of law in favor of the United States on all these issues. Upon appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed and decreed 'that the United States has no title to the patented lands (in suit), and that the title is in and quieted in' respondents. 91 F.2d 14, 45. The Court of Appeals found that Alvarado, the Mexican Governor of California, had executed the purported grant of Mare Island to Castro, including the land in question, but made no finding with respect to the adverse possession of the United States found by the District Court. It held that the paper signed by Alvarado was incompetent evidence of the grant to Castro because of the lack of filing or recordation of the grant in the Mexican archives, see Berreyesa v. United States, 154 U.S. 623 Appx., 14 S.Ct. 1179, 23 L.Ed. 913, and that the decrees of the Board of Land Commissioners and of the District Court on appeal from the Board, confirming the Castro title, were null and void and worthless as evidence because the United States had purchased the interest of the claimants Bissell and Aspinwall while the proceedings were pending before the Board. It characterized the proceeding as collusive and the action of the United States in acquiring title during its pendency as breach of a trust duty assumed under the Swamp Lands Act to convey swamp lands to California, and as in effect a fraud upon the state. It rejected the contention of the United States that the pending Board proceeding for confirmation of the Castro grant withdrew the land in question from the operation of the Swamp Lands Act, which is the source of California's and respondents' alleged title to the land, and held that the reservations of the land made by presidential proclamations for military and naval purposes were ineffective, because California had previously acquired an inchoate title under the Swamp Lands Act.

Respondents renew here the contention made below, based on an elaborate review of the evidence, that the swamp or overflowed lands in question were below high tide and were not within the exterior boundaries of Mare Island as it was known at the time of the Castro grant, and so were not intended by the grantor to be, and were not in fact, included in the description of the grant. Resolution of this issue turns upon appraisal of the evidence and the inferences to be drawn from it. As both courts below have found against respondents on this issue, we shall not re-examine the evidence here. We accept the concurrent findings as establishing the fact that the lands in question were within the description of the deed to Castro. United States v. State Investment Co., 264 U.S. 206, 211, 44 S.Ct. 289, 290, 68 L.Ed. 639; Shappirio v. Goldberg, 192 U.S. 232, 24 S.Ct. 259, 48 L.Ed. 419; cf. Page v. Rogers, 211 U.S. 575, 29 S.Ct. 159, 53 L.Ed. 332; Washington Securities Co. v. United States, 234 U.S. 76, 34 S.Ct. 725, 58 L.Ed. 1220; National Bank v. Shackelford, 239 U.S. 81, 36 S.Ct. 17, 60 L.Ed. 158; Risty v. Chicago, R.I. & P.R. Co., 270 U.S. 378, 46 S.Ct. 236, 70 L.Ed. 641.

Nor is the fact that a patent has issued to California, in obedience to the judgment in the mandamus proceeding brought by respondents in Work v. United States ex rel. O'Donnell, supra, decisive of any issue presented here. Upon the Secretary's approval of the survey of the land in question by the United States Surveyor General for the State of California, showing the lands to be swamp and overflowed at the date of the Swamp Lands Act, and the determination by the Secretary that the lands in question were then swamp and overflowed, it became his duty under the Swamp Lands Act, and under the Act of Congress of July 23, 1866, 14 Stat. 218, to certify the lands for patent to the State. See Tubbs v. Wilhoit, 138 U.S....

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