COSMOS CO. v. GRAY EAGLE CO.

No. 217.

190 U.S. 301 (1903)

COSMOS EXPLORATION COMPANY v. GRAY EAGLE OIL COMPANY.

Supreme Court of United States.

Decided May 18, 1903.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. T.C. Van Ness and Mr. Jefferson Chandler for appellant. Mr. John M. Thurston, Mr. Shirley C. Ward, Mr. M.A. Ballinger, Mr. Horace F. Clark and Mr. William C. Prentiss were on the brief.

Mr. John S. Chapman for appellees. Mr. Frank H. Short was on the brief.


MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the foregoing statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

An examination of the complainant's bill shows that it does not ask for an injunction until the decision of the Land Department upon the matters pending therein. The complainant ignores those proceedings so far as to claim now the final adjudication by the court, based upon its alleged equitable title to a three quarters interest in the land selected, and it avers that the Land Department cannot lawfully refuse or deny the issuance of a patent to Clarke. It avers that the protest filed by defendants is insufficient to impair or affect the validity of the selection of land made by complainant's assignor. The court is, therefore, called upon in advance of and without reference to the action of the Land Department, to determine complainant's right and title to the three quarters interest in the selected land, and a final decree is asked determining the interest of the parties in this land, while the question in relation to the title is still properly before the Land Department, and not yet decided. This we cannot do. Marquez v. Frisbie, 101 U.S. 473; United States v. Schurz, 102 U.S. 378, 395. If the Land Department has any jurisdiction over the subject matter, the question as to the sufficiency of the protest is one for the decision of that department, and its right to decide thereon is not taken from it by the averment of a legal conclusion contained in the complainant's bill that the department has no legal right to decide otherwise than in favor of the complainant upon the facts before it. But assuming that the question of issuing a patent is still and properly before the Land Department, the complainant avers that it has an equitable title to the land which will be protected by the court. Whether complainant has a full, complete and equitable title to the land is a question depending upon considerations hereinafter stated.

There can be, as we think, no doubt that the general administration of the forest reserve act, and also the determination of the various questions which may arise thereunder before the issuing of any patent for the selected lands, are vested in the Land Department. The statute of 1897 does not in terms refer any question that might arise under it to that department, but the subject matter of that act relates to the relinquishment of land in the various forest reservations to the United States, and to the selection of lands, in lieu thereof, from the public lands of the United States, and the administration of the act is to be governed by the general system adopted by the United States for the administration of the laws regarding its public lands. Unless taken away by some affirmative provision of law, the Land Department has jurisdiction over the subject. Catholic Bishop v. Gibbons, 158 U.S. 155, 166, 167. There is no such law, and we must hold that the Land Department has full jurisdiction over matters involving the right of parties to a patent for lands selected under that act in lieu of lands relinquished in a forest reservation. By virtue of that jurisdiction the General Land Department has power to review and set aside (though not arbitrarily) the decisions of local officers relating to those questions, where such officers have power to make those decisions in the first instance. Orchard v. Alexander, 157 U.S. 372; Bank v. Bladow, 176 U.S. 448, 451; Hawley v. Diller, 178 U.S. 476, 490.

The Land Department also has power to adopt and did adopt rules and regulations for the administration of the forest reserve act. The power existed by virtue of the provisions of the Revised Statutes, sections 441, 453 and 2478. Courts will take judicial notice of rules and regulations made by the Land Department regarding the sale or exchange of public land. Caha v. United States, 152 U.S. 211, 221. The rules and regulations promulgated by that department for the purpose of carrying out the provisions of the act of June 4, 1897, are found in 24 L.D. 589, 592, and we think the rules set forth below are reasonable and entitled to respect and obedience as valid rules and regulations.

Among the rules it is provided:

"16. Where final certificate or patent has issued, it will be necessary for the entryman or owner thereunder to execute a quitclaim deed to the United States, have the same recorded on the county records, and furnish an abstract of title, duly authenticated, showing chain of title from the Government back again to the United States. The abstract of title should accompany the application for change of entry, which must be filed as required by paragraph 15, without the affidavit therein called for."

"18. All applications for change of entry or settlement must be forwarded by the local officers to the Commissioner of the General Land Office for consideration, together with report as to the status of the tract applied for."

The "consideration," mentioned in rule 18, is clearly not of the character of a review of a decision already made by the local land officers, but is in the nature of an original consideration of the subject by the General Land Office, to which office the final decision belongs. The applications are to be forwarded, not a decision by the local land office, together with a report (not a decision) as to the status of the land. This rule makes it the duty of the local land officers merely to forward the various applications to the General Land Office, and an original decision is to be made by the latter office upon the papers transmitted to it.

It will be noticed that the bill in this case alleges the proceeding before the local land officers and also that defendants filed a protest, and that the questions raised thereby are still before the Land Department and not yet decided. The complete equitable title of the complainant is not therefore made out, and cannot exist until a favorable decision by that department has been made regarding the sufficiency of complainant's proof of his right to the selected land. That question the department is competent and it is its duty to decide. It may be that when the decision of the Land Department is made, if it be favorable to the applicant, the complete equitable title claimed will accrue from the time the selection of the lands was made in the local land office, and when the patent subsequently issues the legal title will vest from the time of selection. But before any decision is made how can there be an equitable title?

We do not think that by the act of 1883, 22 Stat. 484, the local land officers were given any power to decide upon the sufficiency of the application in such a case as this. That act simply imposed upon them the duty of furnishing plats of townships showing what lands were vacant and what lands taken. It obviously referred to the lands that appeared vacant or appeared to have been taken on the records of their office. It did not assume to provide that no other lands could be taken than such as appeared so to be on those records.

The ground upon which complainant insists that it is the equitable owner of the land selected is that it has relinquished a title in fee in a forest reservation, and has selected in lieu thereof vacant land open to settlement, and that the local land officers duly accepted, received and filed the deed of the land relinquished, and the affidavit that the land selected was non-mineral, and that the officers duly entered such selection upon the official records of the land office, and then and there certified that the land selected was free from conflict, and that there was no adverse filing, entry or claim thereto. Complainant asserts that was all that it could reasonably do; that nothing remained on its part to do, and that when such is the case, the equitable title vests, and it is entitled to the protection of a court of equity to preserve and defend the title so acquired.

Counsel insists that the act of June 4, 1897, constitutes a standing offer on the part of the Government to exchange any of its "vacant land, open to settlement" for a similar area of patented land in a forest reservation, and that whenever a person relinquishes to the Government a tract in a forest reservation and places his deed to the Government of record as required by the Land Department rules, and selects in lieu thereof a similar area of vacant land, open to settlement, that such offer of the Government has thereupon been both accepted and fully complied with, and that a complete equitable title to the selected land is thereby vested in the selector.

But even the complete equitable title asserted by complainant must, as it would seem, be based upon the alleged right of the local land officers to accept the deed and approve the selection, even though such approval may be thereafter the subject of a review in the nature of an appeal from the action of the local officers. There must be a decision made somewhere regarding the rights asserted by the selector of land under the act, before a complete equitable title to the land can exist. The mere filing of papers cannot create such title. The application must comply with and conform to the statute, and the selector cannot decide the question for himself.

We do not see how it can be successfully maintained that, without any decision by any official representing the Government, and by merely filing the deed relinquishing to the Government a tract of forest reserve land and assuming to select a similar area of vacant land open to settlement, the selector has thereby acquired a complete equitable title to the selected land. The selector has not acquired title simply because he has selected land which he claims was at the time of selection vacant land open to settlement, nor does the filing of his deed conveying the land relinquished and the abstract of title with it show necessarily that he was the owner of the land as provided for by the statute. So far as his action goes, it is an assertion on his part that he was the owner in fee simple of the land he proposed to relinquish, and that the deed conveys a fee simple title to a Government, and also that he has selected vacant land which is open to settlement, and that therefore he is entitled to a patent for such land. These assertions may or may not be true. Who is to decide? Complainant asserts that if a decision be necessary before the vesting of a complete equitable title, that in that case the local officers are to decide that question, and by accepting the deed and making the certificate already mentioned, they have decided it, and thereupon, at all events, the complete, equitable title accrued, even though such decision were subject to a review by the Commissioner of the General Land Office and thereafter by the Secretary.

But, as has already been stated, there is nothing in the statute of 1897 which gives the local land officers the right to decide whether the selector has complied with the provisions of the act, and unless those officers had that power they did not acquire it by assuming to exercise it. We do not say they did so assume. They received, accepted and filed the deed, the abstract of title, the non-mineral affidavit and the selection as made by Clarke. They entered that selection upon the official records of the land office and they certified that it was free from conflict, and that there was no adverse filing, entry or claim thereto, but it cannot be said that they decided that the selector had complied with the provisions of the statute or that he had done all that he ought to have done in order to acquire his alleged complete, equitable title.

Their certificate that the land was free from conflict was simply a certificate as to what appeared on the books of the local office, and the same may be said of the statement that there was no adverse filing, entry or claim thereto upon such books. No affidavit of non-occupancy was filed, and they did not certify that the land so selected was in fact vacant or unoccupied, nor did they assume to certify that the selected land contained no minerals, although an affidavit to that effect was presented to them. In truth, all that these local officers did was to certify that the selector had done certain things, and that the land selected was vacant and open to settlement so far as it appeared from the books of the local land office.

Taking into consideration, however, the fact that the statute did not vest the local officers with the right to decide upon the question of a compliance with its terms, and the further fact that the Land Department had adopted rule 18, above referred to, which provides for the forwarding of all applications for change of entry or settlement to the Commissioner of the General Land Office for his consideration, together with a report as to the status of the tract applied for, we must conclude that the action of the local officers did not, as it could not, amount to a decision upon the application of the selector, so that he became vested with the equitable title to the land he assumed to select. It is certain, as we have already remarked, there must be some decision upon that question before any equitable title can be claimed — some decision by an officer authorized to make it. Under the rule above cited that decision has not been made. The General Land Office has (so far as this record shows) come to no conclusion in regard to it.

The protest by the defendants was duly filed within the time permitted by the regulations of the office, and the questions arising thereunder are, as stated in the bill, still pending before the General Land Office. Whether it was necessary, at the time of making the selection, for the selector to file in addition to his non-mineral affidavit an affidavit that the land was not occupied in fact, is a question of law for the Land Department to determine among the other questions to be decided by it. Its decision of any legal question would not, of course, be binding on the courts whenever such a question might properly arise in any future litigation. It is also for the Land Department to determine whether, if the land were not known to be mineral land at the time of the selection, the fact that mineral in paying quantities has been found since that time, will vitiate that selection.

In Kern Oil Company v. Clarke, 30 L.D. 550, 567, referring to the necessity of the filing of a non-occupancy affidavit, it was said:

"That a non-mineral affidavit should accompany the selection is not seriously questioned by appellant. It is just as essential that it should be accompanied by a vacancy or non-occupancy affidavit. Appellant's contention that the word `vacant,' as used in the statute, means public lands which are not shown by the records of the local office or General Land Office to be claimed, appropriated, or reserved, cannot be accepted. Portions of the public lands may be occupied, and for that reason be not subject to selection, and yet there be no mention of their occupancy in the records of the Land Department."

Again, in Gray Eagle Oil Company v. Clarke, 30 L.D. 570, it was also held that under the act of June 4, 1897, it must be shown that at the date of selection the selected lands were unoccupied as well as non-mineral in character, and that until that proof was submitted a selector had not done that which converts the offer of exchange into a contract fully executed on his part whereby he secures a vested right in the selected land. It is unnecessary for the court to express an opinion as to the correctness of these views of the Land Department as stated in its opinion in the above cases.

What may be the decision of the Land Department upon these questions in this case, cannot be known, but until the various questions of law and fact have been determined by that department in favor of complainant it cannot be said that it has a complete equitable title to the land selected.

Concluding, as we do, that the question whether the complainant has ever made a proper selection of land in lieu of the land relinquished, has never been decided by the Land Department, but is still properly before that department, the courts cannot take jurisdiction and proceed to decide such question themselves. The Government has provided a special tribunal for the decision of such a question arising out of the administration of its public land laws, and that jurisdiction cannot be taken away from it by the courts. United States v. Schurz, 102 U.S. 378, 395.

The bill is not based upon any alleged power of the court to prevent the taking out of mineral from the land, pending the decision of the Land Department upon the rights of the complainant, and the court has not been asked by any averments in the bill or in the prayer for relief to consider that question.

For the reasons stated, we think the bill does not state sufficient facts upon which to base the relief asked for, and that the defendants' demurrer to the same was properly sustained. The decree of the Circuit Court of Appeals must, therefore, be

Affirmed.

Petition for modification of judgment. June 1, 1903.

MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM: Ordered, That the decree dismissing the bill in this case be modified by providing that the dismissal is without prejudice to such future proceedings as complainant may be advised, and as so modified, the decree is

Affirmed.


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