United States v. Throckmorton

Decision Date01 October 1878
Citation25 L.Ed. 93,98 U.S. 61
PartiesUNITED STATES v. THROCKMORTON
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

APPEAL from the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of California.

The facts are stated in the opinion of the court.

Mr. Walter Van Dyke for the appellant.

Mr. Delos Lake, contra.

MR. JUSTICE MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

In this case a bill in chancery is brought in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of California, to use the language of the bill itself, 'by Walter Van Dyke, United States attorney for that district, on behalf of the United States,' against Throckmorton, Howard, Goold, and Haggin.

The object of the bill is to have a decree of the court, setting aside and declaring to be null and void a confirmation of the claim of W. A. Richardson under a Mexican grant, to certain lands, made by the board of commissioners of private land-claims in California on the twenty-seventh day of December, 1853; and the decree of the District Court of the United States, made Feb. 11, 1856, affirming the decree of the commissioners, and again confirming Richardson's claim. The general ground on which this relief is asked is that both these decrees were obtained by fraud.

The specific act of fraud which is mainly relief on to support the bill is, that after Richardson had filed his petition before the board of commissioners, with a statement of his claim and the documentary evidence of its validity, March 16, 1852, he became satisfied that he had no sufficient evidence of an actual grant or concession to sustain his claim, and with a view to supply this defect, he made a visit to Mexico, and obtained from Micheltorena, former political chief of California, his signature, on or about the first day of July, 1852, to a grant which was falsely and fraudulently antedated, so as to impose on the court the belief that it was made at a time when Micheltorena had power to make such grants in California; and it is alleged that in support of this simulated and false document he also procured and filed therewith the depositions of perjured witnesses.

There is much verbiage, repetition, and argumentative matter in the bill; but no allegation whatever that any of the attorneys, agents, or other officers of the government were false in their duty to it, or that they assisted or connived at the fraud, unless a single allegation on that subject, which will be hereafter considered, sufficiently makes such charge. For the present, it will be assumed that no such charge is made.

While the bill is elaborate in its statement of matters which are supposed to impeach the decree, and is correspondingly silent as to any thing tending to its support, there are important facts which, it cannot escape attention, could not be omitted. Among these is, that, in attempting to negative the idea that juridical possession of the land was ever delivered to Richardson by the Mexican authorities, it is incidentally admitted that at the time the transaction occurred on which his claim is founded, he was in actual possession and residing on part, if not all, of the land in controversy. So, also, it is tacitly admitted that the archives of the Mexican government, turned over to the office of the United States surveyor-general, and original documents produced by Richardson, showed an espediente which was sufficient to establish the claim, except for the want of the final concession. It is, therefore, to be taken as true that Richardson, being on the land prior to 1838, made his petition to the governor for a grant of this land, which was appropriately referred for information, and that the proper report was had that there was no objection to the grant. According to Mexican law, but two things remained to perfect the title; namely, a grant or concession by the governor, and the delivery of juridical possession. The latter has never been held by this court as indispensable to a confirmation of the grant, and least of all when the party was already in possession, which he had held for many years. It is also important to observe that the original petition was filed before the board, March 16, 1852, and its decree was rendered Dec. 27, 1853; that an appeal was taken to the District Court, where the case remained until Feb. 11, 1856, when it was affirmed; that an appeal was again taken to the Supreme Court of the United States, which was dismissed by order of the Attorney-General on the second day of April, 1857. The case was pending in litigation, therefore, more than five years before the decree became final, and more than four years after the alleged fraudulent grant by Micheltorena was filed in the case. It is also to be observed that the necessity of such a paper to the support of Richardson's claim had been made obvious to the board of commissioners, to the claimant himself, and to the attorneys representing the government, by the report of the surveyor-general, that while every thing else seemed right in his office, the important final decree of concession was not there. The attention, therefore, of all the parties and of the court must have been drawn to a close scrutiny of any proceeding to supply this important document.

There was also ample time to make all necessary inquiries and produce the necessary proof, if it existed, of the fraud. The allegation of the bill is that this simulated concession was filed with the board of commissioners in January, 1853, and the decree rendered on December 27, thereafter. The appeal was pending after this in the District Court over two years; and after the final decree in that court it remained under the consideration of the Attorney-General another year, when he authorized the dismissal of the appeal. The case, then, unless these officers neglected their duties, underwent the scrutiny of two judicial tribunals and of the Attorney-General of the United States, as well as of his subordinate in the State of California, and was before them for a period of five years of litigation.

The bill in this case is filed May 13, 1876, more than twenty years after the rendition of the decree which it seeks to annul. During that time Richardson, the claimant, and the man who is personally charged with the guilt of the fraud, has died; his heirs, who with himself were claimants in the suit, are not made parties, and the land has passed from his ownership to that of the present defendants by purchase and conveyance.

It is true that the defendants are charged in general terms with being purchasers with notice.

It is true that the United States is not bound by the Statute of Limitations, as an individual would be. And we have not recited any of the foregoing matters found in the bill as sufficient of itself to prevent relief in a case otherwise properly cognizable in equity. But we think these are good reasons why a bill which seeks under these circumstances to annul a decree thus surrounded by every presumption which should give it support, shall present on its face a clear and unquestionable ground on which the jurisdiction it invokes can rest.

Let us inquire if this has been done.

There is no question of the general doctrine that fraud vitiates the most solemn contracts, documents, and even judgments. There is also no question that many rights originally founded in fraud become—by lapse of time, by the difficulty of proving the fraud, and by the protection which the law throws around rights once established by formal judicial proceedings in tribunals established by law, according to the methods of the law—no longer open to inquiry in the usual and ordinary methods. Of this class are judgments and decrees of a court deciding between parties before the court and subject to its jurisdiction, in a trial which has presented the claims of the parties, and where they have received the consideration of the court.

There are no maxims of the law more firmly established, or of more value in the administration of justice, than the two which are designed to prevent repeated litigation between the same parties in regard to the same subject of controversy; namely, interest rei publicae, ut sit finis litium, and nemo debet bis vexari pro una et eadam causa.

If the court has been mistaken in the law, there is a remedy by writ of error. If the jury has been mistaken in the facts, the remedy is by motion for new trial. If there has been evidence discovered since the trial, a motion for a new trial will give appropriate relief. But all these are parts of the same proceeding, relief, is given in the same suit, and the party is not vexed by another suit for the same matter. So in a suit in chancery, on proper showing a rehearing is granted. If the injury complained of is an erroneous decision, an appeal to a higher court gives opportunity to correct the error. If new evidence is discovered after the decree has become final, a bill of review on that ground may be filed within the rules prescribed by law on that subject. Here, again, these proceedings are all part of the same suit, and the rule framed for the repose of society is not violated.

But there is an admitted exception to this general rule in cases where, by reason of something done by the successful party to a suit, there was in fact no adversary trial or decision of the issue in the case. Where the unsuccessful party has been prevented from exhibiting fully his case, by fraud or deception practised on him by his opponent, as by keeping him away from court, a false promise of a compromise; or where the defendant never had knowledge of the suit, being kept in ignorance by the acts of the plaintiff; or where an attorney fraudulently or without authority assumes to represent a party and...

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