No. 2.

133 U.S. 21 (1890)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided January 6, 1890.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Walter C. Larned (with whom was Mr. Herbert M. Turner on the brief) for appellant.

Mr. George H. Noyes, for Hiles, appellee.

MR. JUSTICE MILLER, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The principal question suggested by this appeal is, whether the complainant, as representing the railroad company, can maintain a suit for these lands; that is to say, whether the company was endowed by the legislature of Wisconsin with a capacity to receive an indefinite quantity of lands, with no limitation upon their use, or upon their sale, or whether they were limited to the lands necessary to such uses as were appropriate to the operations of a railroad.

It is not pretended that there is any general statute of the State of Wisconsin which authorizes either this company or any other corporation to purchase and hold lands indefinitely, as an individual could do, without regard to the uses to be made of such real estate. The charter of the company, approved April 12, 1866, Private Laws Wis. 1866, c. 540, p. 1331, authorizes it to acquire real estate, namely, the fee simple in lands, tenements and easements, for their legitimate use for railroad purposes. It is thus authorized to take lands 100 feet in width for right of way, and also such as is needed for depot buildings, stopping-stages, station-houses, freight-houses, warehouses, engine-houses, machine-shops, factories, and for purposes connected with the use and management of the railroad. This enumeration of the purposes for which the corporation could acquire title to real estate must necessarily be held exclusive of all other purposes, and, as the court said at the time of making its interlocutory decree, "it was not authorized by its charter to take lands for speculative or farming purposes."

It must be held, therefore, that there was no authority under the laws of Wisconsin for this corporation to receive an indefinite quantity of lands, whether by purchase or gift, to be converted into money or held for any other purposes than those mentioned in its act of incorporation.

To this view of the subject counsel urges several objections. The first of these which we will notice is that the charter of the corporation is a private act of which the court cannot take judicial notice, and that as it was not pleaded nor offered in evidence, nor otherwise brought to the attention of the court, it could not be the foundation of its judgment. To this there are two sufficient answers. The first of which is, that if the statute creating this corporation gave it no power to receive and hold lands in the manner we have mentioned, then it had no such power by virtue of any law of the State of Wisconsin; for a corporation, in order to be entitled to buy and sell, to receive and hold, the title to real estate, must have some statutory authority of the State in which such lands lie, to enable it to do so, and the absence of such provision in the law of its incorporation does not create any general statute which authorizes any such right.

Another answer is, that in the charter of the railroad company itself, Laws of Wisconsin of 1866, chapter 540, section 14, it is expressly enacted that "this act is hereby declared to be a public act, and shall take effect and be in force from and after its passage and publication." To this it is replied by counsel for appellant that the statute of Wisconsin cannot make that a public law which in its essential nature is a private law. However this may be, we do not doubt the authority of the legislature of a State to enact that after the passage and publication of one of its statutes the courts of the State shall be bound to take judicial notice of it without its being pleaded or proven before them. This rule, thus prescribed for the government of the courts of the States, must be binding in proceedings in federal courts in the same State. Indeed, the distinction between public and private acts has become very artificial and shadowy since legislative bodies have adopted the principle of publishing in printed form all statutes which they pass. Some of the States keep up the distinction by making a difference in the manner in which public and private acts shall be published, and in such cases this difference is to be observed and may become of some consequence, but the power of the legislature to declare in any case that after the passage and publication of any of its laws they shall be judicially noticed as public acts cannot, we think, be doubted.

It is next objected to the principle adopted by the court that the limitation upon the power of the corporation to receive land is one which concerns the State alone, and the title to such lands in a corporation can only be defeated by a proceeding in the nature of a quo warranto on behalf of the State. The case of National Bank v. Matthews, 98 U.S. 621, is strenuously relied on to support this view. We need not stop here to inquire whether this company can hold title to lands, which it is impliedly forbidden to do by its charter, because the case before us is not one in which the title to the lands in question has ever been vested in the railroad company, or attempted to be so vested. The railroad company is plaintiff in this action, and is seeking to obtain the title to such lands. It has no authority by the statute to receive such title and to own such lands, and the question here is, not whether the courts would deprive it of such lands if they had been conveyed to it, but whether they will aid it to violate the law and obtain a title which it has no power to hold. We think the questions are very different ones, and that while a court might hesitate to declare the title to lands received already, and in the possession and ownership of the company, void on the principle that they had no authority to take such lands, it is very clear that it will not make itself the active agent in behalf of the company in violating the law and enabling the company to do that which the law forbids.

Another alleged error in the decree of the court relates to that part of it which authorizes Hiles to recover the value of his improvements if the corporation chooses to take the improvements. We do not think this objection sufficient to reverse the decree. In the first place, the right of the plaintiff to have this land is not based so much upon the ground of the defendants having purchased it for the benefit of the road as upon the offer of counsel of Hiles to convey it in case he were paid for the improvements. But if we suppose that Hiles held this land in trust for the benefit of the plaintiffs, and is willing to acknowledge that trust, there is no reason why, in a court of equity, when the complainant asserts his right to the land and claims to recover both the title and possession from his trustee, he should not pay the value of the improvements which that trustee has placed upon it. It is further to be observed that the option is given to complainant to take these improvements with the land or to reject the improvements and take the land without them, in which latter case he is merely required to give the owners of the improvements access to the land for the purpose of removing them. If he desires the improvements he can keep them by paying for them. Hiles paid for the land when he got the title, and we see nothing unjust or inequitable in his receiving compensation for improvements made in good faith upon the land which he is now willing to convey to the company, if the company chooses to take them at their appraised value.

We are urged to consider that if this decree is affirmed dismissing the bill of the railroad company, the defendants will be left in the possession of property fraudulently acquired, of considerable value, for which they gave no consideration. The answer to this is, that such question cannot be raised by the plaintiff in this case, because, having no right to take the property, it is not injured by a decree of the court which fails to grant such right. The other questions must be between the defendants in this case and those from whom they took deeds of conveyance, or such other parties, public or private, as may show that they have an interest in the controversy.

The decree of the Circuit Court is


MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER did not hear this case and took no part in its decision.


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