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decided: April 4, 1910.



Author: Fuller

[ 217 U.S. Page 75]

 MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER delivered the opinion of the court, after reading the following memorandum:

This opinion, including the preliminary statement, was prepared by our Brother Brewer, and had been approved before his lamented death. It was recirculated and again agreed to, and is adopted as the opinion of the court.

Petitioners contend that by their tender they made a contract with the State for a conveyance of the lands in controversy; that this contract was broken, and that they were deprived of their rights thereunder by the legislation of the State and the action of its officers in pursuance thereof; that thus a Federal question arises under Art. I, ยง 10, of the Constitution of the United States, which forbids a State to pass a "law impairing the obligation of contracts." Their argument is briefly this: The lands were not obtained by McEnery under his contract with the State; the statute authorizing that contract provided that his payment should be solely out of the lands obtained by him from the United States. Notwithstanding this limitation, certificates were issued to him authorizing location upon any lands included within the grant of Congress by the act of 1849, and they were in fact located upon the lands in controversy -- lands which were not obtained by McEnery; that this location, even when followed by patent, did not segregate these lands from the public domain of the State, and they remained therefore open to purchase by any one complying with the statutes; that petitioners were the first and only parties who tendered to the State the prescribed price; that thereby they acquired a vested right to a conveyance by the State of the legal title.

But it is not contended that the patents were not signed by the proper officers and in due form to convey the title of the State to the patentees. It is not suggested that McEnery received any greater amount of lands than he was entitled to receive under his contract, and it does not appear from the

[ 217 U.S. Page 76]

     record that the patents, on their face, disclosed any invalidity in the title conveyed. While an examination of the records would, if the facts stated in the petition are true, show that they were improperly issued yet this could be ascertained only by looking beyond the face of the patent. Now, whether the patents were wrongfully issued or could be set aside was a matter to be settled between the State and the patentee. The State undoubtedly received something, for the acceptance of every McEnery certificate released the State pro tanto from its obligation under the contract to McEnery. Whether it should remain satisfied with that payment or not was for the State to determine. If it were not satisfied it could take proper proceedings to set aside the patent, but no individual was authorized to act for the State.

The rule in respect to the administration of the public domain of the United States is well settled. In Doolan v. Carr, 125 U.S. 618, 624, Mr. Justice Miller said:

"There is no question as to the principle that where the officers of the Government have issued a patent in due form of law, which on its face is sufficient to convey the title to the land described in it, such patent is to be treated as valid in actions at law, as distinguished from suits in equity, subject, however, at all times to the inquiry whether such officers had the lawful authority to make a conveyance of the title. But if those officers acted without authority; if the land which they purported to convey had never been within their control, or had been withdrawn from that control at the time they undertook to exercise such authority, then their act was void -- void for want of power in them to act on the subjectmatter of the patent, not merely voidable; in which latter case, if the circumstances justified such a decree, a direct proceeding, with proper averments and evidence, would be required to establish that it was voidable, and should therefore be avoided."

In Hastings &c. Railroad Company v. Whitney, 132 U.S. 357, 363, Mr. Justice Lamar, who had been Secretary of the

[ 217 U.S. Page 77]

     Interior, discussed the question of a homestead entry, and, after referring to Kansas Pacific Railway Co. v. Dunmeyer, 113 U.S. 629, added:

"Counsel for plaintiff in error contends that the case just cited has no application to the one we are now considering, the difference being that in that case the entry existing at the time of the location of the road was an entry valid in all respects, while the entry in this case was invalid on its face, and in its inception; and that this entry having been made by an agent of the applicant, and based upon an affidavit, which failed to show the settlement and improvement required by law, was, on its face, not such a proceeding in the proper land office, as could attach even an inchoate right to the land.

"We do not think this contention can be maintained. Under the homestead law three things are needed to be done in order to constitute an entry on public lands. . . . If either one of these integral parts of an entry is defective, that is, if the affidavit be insufficient in its showing, or if the application itself is informal, or if the payment is not made in actual cash, the register and receiver are justified in rejecting the application. But if, notwithstanding these defects, the application is allowed by the land officers, and a certificate of entry is delivered to the applicant, and the entry is made of record, such entry may be afterwards canceled on account of these defects by the Commissioner, or on appeal by the Secretary of the Interior; or, as is often the practice, the entry may be suspended, a hearing ordered, and the party notified to show by supplemental proof a full compliance with the requirements of the department; and on failure to do so the entry may then be canceled. But these defects, whether they be of form or substance, by no means render the entry absolutely a nullity. So long as it remains a subsisting entry of record, whose legality has been passed upon by the land authorities, and their action remains unreversed, it is such an appropriation of the tract as segregates it from the public domain, and therefore precludes it from subsequent grants."

[ 217 U.S. Page 78]

     In In re Emblen, 161 U.S. 52, 56, Mr. Justice Gray thus stated the law:

"After the patent has once been issued, the original contest is no longer within the jurisdiction of the land department. The patent conveys the legal title to the patentee; and cannot be revoked or set aside, except upon judicial proceedings instituted in behalf of the United States. The only remedy of Emblen is by bill in equity to charge Weed with a trust in his favor. All this is clearly settled by previous decisions of this court, including some of those on which the petitioner most relies. Johnson v. Towsley, 13 Wall. 72; Moore v. Robbins, 96 U.S. 530; Marquez v. Frisbie, 101 U.S. 473; Smelting Company v. Kemp, 104 U.S. 636; Steel v. Smelting Company, 106 U.S. 447; Monroe Cattle Company v. Becker, 147 U.S. 47; Turner v. Sawyer, 150 U.S. 578, 586."

See also McMichael v. Murphy, 197 U.S. 304, 311.

Obviously, in this case the Supreme Court of Louisiana followed the practice obtaining in respect to the public lands of the United States. But if it had not and had declared simply the law of the State of Louisiana its decision would, doubtless, be controlling on this court, for, in the matter of the sale and conveyance of lands belonging to the public no one State is obliged to follow the legislation or decisions of another State, or even those of the United States, but may administer its public lands in any way that it sees fit, so long as it does not conflict with rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

Counsel criticize the opinion of the Supreme Court of Louisiana, in that it speaks of all the lands as having gone to patent while it is said in the petition that some of the assignees "stood upon the certificates." Whether the language of the petition technically justifies the construction placed upon it by the Supreme Court of the State, is immaterial. Certainly, there is no naming of any single tract as covered by certificate alone and not patented, and if any tract was held under a certificate of location it was, within the scope of the ruling

[ 217 U.S. Page 79]

     of the Supreme Court, not subject to other entry or purchase.

We see no error in the ruling of the Supreme Court, and its judgment is



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