93 U.S. 634 (____)


Supreme Court of United States.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Submitted on printed arguments by Mr. W. E. F. Deal for the plaintiff in error, and by Mr. C. E. De Long for the defendant in error.

MR. JUSTICE DAVIS delivered the opinion of the court.

The validity of the patent from the State under which the plaintiff claims title rests on the assumption that sections 16 and 36, whether surveyed or unsurveyed, and whether containing minerals or not, were granted to Nevada for the support of common schools by the seventh section of the Enabling Act, approved March 21, 1864, 13 Stat. 32, which is as follows: "That sections numbered 16 and 36 in every township, and where such sections have been sold or otherwise disposed of by any act of Congress, other lands equivalent thereto, in legal subdivisions of not less than one quarter-section, and as contiguous as may be, shall be, and are hereby, granted to said State for the support of common schools."

This assumption is not admitted by the United States, who, in conformity with the act of Congress of July 26, 1866, 14 id. 251, issued to the defendant a patent to the land in controversy, bearing date March 2, 1874. Which is the better title is the point for decision. As it has been the settled policy of the government to promote the development of the mining resources of the country, and as mining is the chief industry in Nevada, the question is of great interest to her people.

It is true that there are words of present grant in this law; but, in construing it, we are not to look at any single phrase in it, but to its whole scope, in order to arrive at the intention of the makers of it. "It is better always," says Judge Sharswood, "to adhere to a plain common-sense interpretation of the words of a statute, than to apply to them refined and technical rules of grammatical construction. Gyger's Estate, 65 Penn. St. 312. If a literal interpretation of any part of it would operate unjustly, or lead to absurd results, or be contrary to the evident meaning of the act taken as a whole, it should be rejected. There is no better way of discovering its true meaning, when expressions in it are rendered ambiguous by their connection with other clauses, than by considering the necessity for it, and the causes which induced its enactment. With these rules as our guide, it is not difficult, we think, to give a true construction to the law under consideration.

Congress, at the time, was desirous that the people of the Territory of Nevada should form a State government, and come into the Union. The terms of admission were proposed, and, as was customary in previous enabling acts, the particular sections of the public lands to be donated to the new State for the use of common schools were specified. These sections had not been surveyed, nor had Congress then made, or authorized to be made, any disposition of the national domain within that Territory.

But this condition of things did not deter Congress from making the necessary provision to place, in this respect, Nevada on an equal footing with States then recently admitted. Her people were not interested in getting the identical sections 16 and 36 in every township. Indeed, it could not be known until after a survey where they would fall, and a grant of quantity put her in as good a condition as the other States which had received the benefit of this bounty. A grant, operating at once, and attaching prior to the surveys by the United States, would deprive Congress of the power of disposing of any part of the lands in Nevada, until they were segregated from those granted. In the mean time, further improvements would be arrested, and the persons, who prior to the surveys had occupied and improved the country, would lose their possessions and labor, in case it turned out that they had settled upon the specified sections. Congress was fully advised of the condition of Nevada, of the evils which such a measure would entail upon her, and of all antecedent legislation upon the subject of the public lands within her bounds. In the light of this information, and surrounded by these circumstances, Congress made the grant in question. It is ambiguous; for its different parts cannot be reconciled, if the words used receive their usual meaning. Schulenberg v. Harriman, 21 Wall. 44, establishes the rule that "unless there are other clauses in a statute restraining the operation of words of present grant, these must be taken in their natural sense." We do not seek to depart from this sound rule; but, in this instance, words of qualification restrict the operation of those of present grant. Literally construed, they refer to past transactions; but evidently they were not employed in this sense, for no lands in Nevada had been sold or disposed of by any act of Congress. There was no occasion of making provision for substituted lands, if the grant took effect absolutely on the admission of the State into the Union, and the title to the lands then vested in the State. Congress cannot be supposed to have intended a vain thing, and yet it is quite certain that the language of the qualification was intended to protect the State against a loss that might happen through the action of Congress in selling or disposing of the public domain. It could not, as we have seen, apply to past sales or dispositions, and, to have any effect at all, must be held to apply to the future.

This interpretation, although seemingly contrary to the letter of the statute, is really within its reason and spirit. It accords with a wise public policy, gives to Nevada all she could reasonably ask, and acquits Congress of passing a law which in its effects would be unjust to the people of the Territory. Besides, no other construction is consistent with the statute as a whole, and answers the evident intention of its makers to grant to the State in prœsenti a quantity of lands equal in amount to the 16th and 36th sections in each township. Until the status of the lands was fixed by a survey, and they were capable of identification, Congress reserved absolute power over them; and if in exercising it the whole or any part of a 16th or 36th section had been disposed of, the State was to be compensated by other lands equal in quantity, and as near as may be in quality. By this means the State was fully indemnified, the settlers ran no risk of losing the labor of years, and Congress was left free to legislate touching the national domain in any way it saw fit, to promote the public interests.

It is argued, that, conceding the soundness of this construction, the defence cannot be sustained, because the land in controversy was not actually sold by direction of Congress until after the survey. This position ignores a familar rule in the construction of statutes, that they must be so construed as to admit all parts of them to stand, if possible. 1 Bouv. Inst. p. 42, sect. 7. The language used is, "sold or otherwise disposed of by any act of Congress." The point made by the plaintiff would reject a part of these words, and defeat one of the main purposes in view. Congress knew, as did the whole country, that Nevada was possessed of great mineral wealth, and that lands containing it should be disposed of differently from those fit only for agriculture. No method for doing this had then been provided; but Congress said to the people of the Territory, "You shall, if you decide to come into the Union, have for the use of schools sections numbered 16 and 36 in every township, if on survey no one else has any valid claim to them; but until this decision is made and the lands are surveyed, we reserve the right either to sell them or dispose of them in any other way that commends itself to our judgment. If they are sold or disposed of, you shall have other lands equivalent thereto." The right so reserved is subject to no limitation, and the wisdom of not surrendering it is apparent. The whole country is interested in the development of our mineral resources, and to secure it adequate protection was required for those engaged in it. The act of Congress of July 26, 1866, supra, passed before the land in controversy was surveyed, furnishes this protection, by disposing of the mineral lands of the United States to actual occupants and claimants, and providing a method for the acquisition of title. The defendant, and those under whom it claims, occupied the land prior to the survey, and were entitled to purchase. The patent subsequently obtained from the United States relates back to the time of the original location and entry, and perfects their right to the exclusion of all adverse intervening claims.

These views dispose of this case; but there is another ground equally conclusive. Congress, on the 4th of July, 1866, 14 Stat. 85, by an act concerning lands granted to the State of Nevada, among other things, reserved from sale all mineral lands in the State, and authorized the lines of surveys to be changed from rectangular, so as to exclude them. This was doubtless intended as a construction of the grant under consideration; but whether it be correct or not, and whatever may be the effect of the grant in its original shape, it was clearly competent for the grantee to accept it in its modified form, and agree to the construction put upon it by the grantor. The State, by its legislative act of Feb. 13, 1867, ratified that construction, and accepted the grant with the conditions annexed.

We agree with the Supreme Court of Nevada, that this acceptance "was a recognition by the legislature of the State of the validity of the claim made by the government of the United States to the mineral lands."

It is objected that the constitution of Nevada inhibited such legislation; but the Supreme Court of the State, in the case we are reviewing, held that it did not, 10 Nev. 314; and we think their reasoning on this subject is conclusive.

Judgment affirmed.


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