United States v. Whited Wheless

Decision Date15 April 1918
Docket NumberNo. 204,204
PartiesUNITED STATES v. WHITED & WHELESS, Limited, et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Syllabus on page 552 intentionally omitted.]

Mr. Assistant Attorney General Kearful, for the United States.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 552-555 intentionally omitted] Messrs. T. Alexander and J. D. Wilkinson, both of Shreveport, La., for defendants in error.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 556-560 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice CLARKE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is a suit to recover from the liquidating commissioners and the former president of a dissolved corporation the value of public lands described in a patent which it is alleged was procured from the government by the fraudulent conduct of the company and of its president.

A demurrer to the petition was sustained by the District Court, and this judgment was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals on the ground that the cause of action stated was barred by the statute of limitations, which reads as follows:

'That suits by the United States to vacate and annul any patent heretofore issued shall only be brought within five years from the passage of this act, and suits to vacate and annul patents hereafter issued shall only be brought within six years after the date of the issuance of such patents.' Act March 3, 1891, c. 561, § 8, 26 Stat. 1099 (Comp. St. 1916, § 5114).

The patent involved was issued on December 12, 1898, and if this case, commenced on December 29, 1914, were one 'to vacate and annul' the patent, plainly it would be barred. But this being a suit to recover damages from the fraudulent procurers of the patent, the question presented for decision is:

'Does the statutory bar to a suit to annul the patent also bar a suit for the value of the land fraudulently procured to be patented?'

The chief argument in support of the judgment of the lower court is that while the government before the period of the statute had expired had two remedies, one to annul the patent and one, affirming the patent, to recover the value of the land, yet they were both based on one right, and that when the statute barred the suit to annul, thereby the patent became as valid for the future as if it had been properly issued and that this cuts off the right, and leaves the government without further remedy.

This is begging the question. The statute of limitations did not create the right of action in the government or either of the remedies for enforcing that right. It relates to the remedy, and in terms applies only to one remedy, that for annulling the patent. The right of the government, asserted in this case, really springs from the fraudulent obtaining of the patent, not from the patent itself, and this right continues until it is satisfied or cut off by statute, and therefore to say that the barring of one remedy smothers the right to pursue the other is mere assertion, and does not advance us toward a conclusion as to the effect, if any, which such bar may have upon the other remedy, and the question we are considering remains unanswered, but becomes: What was the intention of Congress, confessedly not clearly expressed, with respect to this issue, when it enacted this limitation statute?

Fundamental to the interpretation of the statute which the answering of this question renders necessary, lies the rule of law settled 'as a great principle of public policy' that the 'United States, asserting rights vested in them as a sovereign government, are not bound by any statute of limitations, unless Congress has clearly manifested its intention that they should be so bound' (United States v. Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Ry. Co., 118 U. S. 120, 125, 6 Sup. Ct. 1006, 30 L. Ed. 81), and also the fact that this principle has been accepted by this court as requiring not a liberal, but a restrictive, a strict, construction of such statutes when it has been urged to apply them to bar the rights of the government. Thus, in Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. United States, 227 U. S. 355, 367, 33 Sup. Ct. 368, 57 L. Ed. 544, the limitation in the Act of March 2, 1896 (29 Stat. 42, c. 29), was hold not applicable to a patent erroneously issued for In ian lands under a railroad grant, and in La Roque v. United States, 239 U. S. 62, 68, 36 Sup. Ct. 22, 60 L. Ed. 147, the general language of the very act we are considering was held not applicable to a trust patent for Indian reserved lands.

With this rule of interpretation and of practice under it in mind, let us consider the scope of the limitation provision relied upon, which is found in section 8 of the Act of March 3, 1891 (26 Stat. 1099, c. 561) entitled 'An act to repeal timber culture laws and for other purposes.'

This act is a very considerable amendment to and revision of laws relating to public lands and, as House Report No. 253, 54th Congress, 1st Session, shows, it grew out of the insecurity and loss of confidence of the public in the integrity and value of patent titles to public lands, which had been occasioned by conflicting claims, chiefly between land grant railroad companies and the government, which had resulted in many suits being commenced to cancel patents. The statute was passed to...

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    ...Dupont De Nemours & Co. v. Davis, 264 U.S. 456, 462, 44 S.Ct. 364, 68 L.Ed. 788 (1924); see also United States v. Whited & Wheless, 246 U.S. 552, 561, 38 S.Ct. 367, 62 L.Ed. 879 (1918) (explaining that this construction derives from the "`great principle of public policy' that the `United S......
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    ...of action is discovered. This statute did not in terms extend the bar to the government's remedy at law. United States v. Whited & Wheless, 246 U. S. 552, 38 Sup. Ct. 367, 62 L. Ed. 879, held that the law gave two remedies to protect the single right, and that the act of 1891 left intact th......
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