United States v. State of Minnesota 1926

Decision Date01 March 1926
Docket NumberO,No. 17,17
Citation270 U.S. 181,46 S.Ct. 298,70 L.Ed. 539
PartiesUNITED STATES v. STATE OF MINNESOTA. riginal. Aruged Jan. 4 and 5, 1926
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus from pages 181-183 intentionally omitted] The Attorney General and Mr. W. W. Dyar, of Washington, D. C., for the United States.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 183-190 intentionally omitted] Messrs, M. J. Brown and G. A. Youngquist, both of St. Paul, Minn., and Charles R. Pierce, of Miami, Fla., for the State of Minnesota.

[Argument of Counsel from page 190 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a suit in equity brought in this court by the United States against the state of Minnesota to cancel patents issued to her for certain lands under the swamp land grant, or, where the state has sold the lands, to recover their value and to leave the patents uncanceled as to such lands. Seven patents, for about 153,000 acres, are brought in question. The first was issued May 13, 1871, and the others at different times from May 17, 1900, to June 10, 1912. The bill was filed May 7, 1923. The state answered, and the case was heard and submitted on the pleadings and much documentary evidence. The issues presented are chiefly of law.

It is not questioned that the lands were swampy and in this respect within the swamp land grant, nor that the patents were sought by the state and issued by the land officers in good faith. But it is insisted, on behalf of the United States, first, that by treaties and other engagements with the Chippewa Indians, entered into before the patents were issued, the United States became obligated to apply the lands and the proceeds of their sale exclusively to the use, support, and civilization of the Chippewas, and that this operated to exclude or withdraw the lands from the swamp land grant; secondly, that the state failed to select or claim the lands within the period prescribed in the act making the grant, and thereby lost any right which she may have had to have them patented to her; and, thirdly, that the grant was subject to a condition whereby the state was required to apply the lands or the proceeds of their sale in effecting their reclamation by means of needed ditches, and that before the patents were issued the state, by an amendment to her Constitution, had disabled herself from complying with that condition and proclaimed her purpose to apply the lands and their proceeds otherwise, and thereby and lost any right she may have had to receive the patents. Stating it in another way, the insistence, on the part of the United States, is that the lands were appropriated or set apart for the Chippewas, that the land officers, misconceiving their au- thority in the premises, issued the patents contrary to the provisions of the act making the swamp land grant and in disregard of obligations to the Indians which the United States had assumed and was bound to respect, that those obligations are still existing and must be performed, and that to enable the United States to proceed with their performance it is entitled to a cancellation of the patents as respects such of the lands as still are held by the state and to recover the value of such as she has sold.

Besides disputing the several contentions just stated, the state advances two propositions, either of which her counsel conceive must end the case.

The first proposition is that the suit is essentially one brought by the Indians against the state, and therefore is not within the original jurisdiction of this court. In support of the proposition it is said that the United States is only a nominal party, a mere conduit through which the Indians are asserting their private rights; that the Indians are the real parties in interest, and will be the sole beneficiaries of any recovery; and that the United States will not be affected, whether a recovery is had or denied.

It must be conceded that, if the Indians are the real parties in interest and the United States only a nominal party, the suit is not within this court's original jurisdiction. New Hampshire v. Louisiana, 2 S. Ct. 176, 108 U. S. 76, 27 L. Ed. 656; Hans v. Louisiana, 10 S. Ct. 504, 134 U. S. 1, 33 L. Ed. 842; North Dakota v. Minnesota, 44 S. Ct. 138, 263 U. S. 365, 374-376, 68 L. Ed. 342. But the allegations and prayer of the bill-by which the purpose and nature of the suit must be tested-give no warrant for saying that the Indians are the real parties in interest and the United States only a nominal party. At the outset the bill shows that the Indians, although citizens of the state, are in many respects, and particlarly in their relation to the matter here in controversy, under the guardianship of the United States and entitled to its aid and protection. This is followed by allegations to the effect that the Indians had an interest in the lands before and when they were patented to the state, that the patents were issued by the land officers without authority of law and in violation of an existing obligation of the United States to apply the lands and the proceeds of their sale exclusively to the use and benefit of the Indians, and that it is essential to the fulfillment of that obligation that the lands-or, where any have been sold, their value in their stead-be restored to the control of the United States. And the prayer is for a decree compelling such a restoration and declaring that the lands and moneys are to be held, administered, and disposed of by the United States conformably to that obligation.

Whether in point of merits the bill is well grounded or otherwise, we think it shows that the United States has a real and direct interest in the matter presented for examination and adjudication. Its interest arises out of its guardianship over the Indians, and out of its right to invoke the aid of a court of equity in removing unlawful obstacles to the fulfillment of its obligations, and in both aspects the interest is one which is vested in it as a sovereign. Heckman v. United States, 32 S. Ct. 424, 224 U. S. 413, 437, 444, 56 L. Ed. 820; United States v. Osage County, 40 S. Ct. 100, 251 U. S. 128, 132, 133, 64 L. Ed. 184; La Motte v. United States, 41 S. Ct. 204, 254 U. S. 570, 575, 64 L. Ed. 410; Cramer v. United States, 43 S. Ct. 342, 261 U. S. 219, 232, 67 L. Ed. 622; United States v. Beebe, 8 S. Ct. 1083, 127 U. S. 338, 342-343, 32 L. Ed. 121; United States v. New Orleans Pacific Ry. Co., 39 S. Ct. 175, 248 U. S. 507, 518, 63 L. Ed. 388. And see United States v. Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Ry. Co., 6 S. Ct. 1006, 118 U. S. 120, 126, 30 L. Ed. 81; In re Debs, 15 S. Ct. 900, 158 U. S. 564, 584, 39 L. Ed. 1092.

Counsel for the state point out that the Indians could neither sue the state to enforce the right asserted in their behalf nor sue the United States for a failure to call on the state to surrender the lands or their value, and from this they argue that the United States is under no duty and has no right, to bring this suit. But the premise does not make for the conclusion. The reason the Indians could not bring the suits suggested lies in the general immunity of the state and the United States from suit in the absence of consent. Of course, the immunity of the state is subject to the constitutional qualification that she may be sued in this Court by the United States, a sister state, or a foreign state. United States v. Texas, 12 S. Ct. 488, 143 U. S. 621, 642, et seq., 36 L. Ed. 285. Otherwise her immunity is like that of the United States. But immunity from suit is not based on and does not reflect an absence of duty. So the fact that the Indians could not sue the United States for a failure to demand that the state surrender the lands or their value does not show that the United States owes no duty to the Indians in that regard. Neither does the fact that they could not sue the state show that the United States is without right to sue her for their benefit. But it does make for and emphasize the duty, and therefore the right, of the United States to sue. This is a necessary conclusion from the ruling in United States v. Beebe, supra, where much consideration was given to the duty and right of the United States in respect of the cancellation of patents wrongly issued. This court there pointed out special instances in which the government might with propriety refrain from suing and leave the individuals affected to settle the question of title by personal litigation, and then said that where the patent, if allowed to stand 'would work prejudice to the interests or rights of the United States, or would prevent the government from fulfilling an obligation incurred by it, either to the public or to an individual, which personal litigation could not remedy, there would be an occasion which would make it the duty of the government to institute judicial proceedings to vacate such patent.'

The state's second proposition is that the suit is barred by the provision in the Act of March 3, 1891, c. 561, § 8 26 Stat. 1095, 1099, being Comp. St. § 5114 (also chapter 559, p. 1093), limiting the time within which the United States may sue to annul patents, and, if not by that provision, then by a law of the state. But both branches of the proposition must be overruled. The provision in the act of 1891 has been construed and adjudged in prior decisions-which we see no reason to disturb-to be strictly a part of the public land laws and without application to suits by the United States to annul patents, as here, because issued in alleged violation of rights of its Indian wards and of its obligations to them. Cramer v. United States, supra, page 233 (43 S. Ct. 342); La Roque v. United States, 36 S. Ct. 22, 239 U. S. 62, 68, 60 L. Ed. 147; Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. United States, 33 S. Ct. 368, 227 U. S. 355, 367, 57 L. Ed. 544. And it also is settled that state statutes of limitation neither bind nor have any application to the United States, when suing to...

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