UNITED STATES V. MINOR, 114 U. S. 233 (1885)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Minor, 114 U.S. 233 (1885)

United States v. Minor

Submitted January 26, 1885

Decided March 30, 1885

114 U.S. 233


The United States has the same remedy in a court of equity to set aside or annul a patent for land on the ground of fraud in procuring its issue which an individual would have in regard to his own deed procured under similar circumstances.

Page 114 U. S. 234

The doctrine of the conclusiveness of judgments and decrees of courts, as between those who are parties to the litigation is not applicable to the United States in regard to the proceedings before the land officers in granting patents for the public land.

Though it has been said very truly in some cases that the officers of the Land Department exercise functions in their nature judicial, this has reference to cases in which individuals have, as between each other, contested the right to a patent before those officers, whose decision as to the facts before them is held to be conclusive between those parties.

But fraud or imposition on those officers, or a radical mistake by them of the law governing the disposition of the public lands, has always been held to be subject to remedy in a court of equity, and where there has been no contest, and the claimant produces without opposition his ex parte proofs of performance of the necessary conditions, it is especially needful that equity should give the government a remedy if those proofs are founded in fraud and perjury.

This is an appeal from a decree of the Circuit Court for the District of California dismissing the bill of the United States on demurrer. The object of the bill was to set aside and annul a patent issued by the United States to Minor on January 5, 1876, for the N.W. 1/4 of Section 18, township 6 North, Range 2 East of the Humboldt Meridian. The bill as originally filed made, in substance, the following allegations:

That said Minor, on the 23d day of October, 1874, filed the declaratory statement in the land office necessary to give him a right of preemption to the land, alleging that he had made a settlement on it March 20 of that year, and on June 20, 1875, he made the usual affidavit that he had so settled on the land in March of the previous year; that he had improved it, built a house on it, and continued to reside on it from the time of said settlement, and had cultivated about one acre of it. He also made affidavit, as the law required, that he had not so settled upon and improved the land with any agreement or contract with any person by which the title he might acquire would inure to the benefit of the latter. He also made oath that he was not the owner of 320 acres of land in any state or territory in the United States. These affidavits being received by the register and receiver as true, he paid the money necessary to perfect his right, received of them the usual certificate,

Page 114 U. S. 235

called a patent certificate, on which there was issued to him at the General Land Office in due time the patent which is now assailed.

The bill then charges that all these statements, made under oath before the land officers, were false and fraudulent; that defendant had never made the settlement nor cultivation nor improvements mentioned; that he had never resided on the land, but during all the time had lived and had his home in a village about twelve miles distant, and that he had not made these proofs of settlement to appropriate the land to his own use, but with intent to sell the same to some person unknown to the plaintiff.

It was also charged that defendant produced, in corroboration of his own statement, the affidavit of a witness, one Joseph Ohuitt, who testified to the settlement, improvement, and residence of defendant, all of which was false and fraudulent. It was then alleged that by these false affidavits the land officers, supposing them to be true, were deceived and misled into allowing said preemption claim and issuing said patent, to the great injury of the United States.

A demurrer to this bill having been sustained, plaintiff was allowed to file an amendment, by which it is set out that one Richard Spence entered upon the west half of the quarter-section in question on the first day of April, 1872, with the intention of preempting the same as soon as the lands were surveyed and open to preemption, and that on the 22d day of October, 1874, the approved plat of said surveys was duly filed in the land office at Humboldt, and on the third day of December thereafter Spence made his declaratory statement for the west half of that quarter-section and the west half of the southwest half of the same section. It is further alleged that Spence, having complied with the terms authorizing his preemption by actual residence, improvement, and cultivation, and having commuted his preemption right for a homestead right, and perfected his cultivation and improvement by a five years' residence, and paid the fees of the officers, made application on the 5th day of April, 1880, for his patent, to which he was legally entitled, but it was found that Minor's patent covered

Page 114 U. S. 236

half his claim, to-wit, the west half of the northwest quarter of the section.

The title having passed from the United States to Minor for the entire quarter-section, no patent could be issued to Spence, who was, and still is, equitably entitled to a part of it.

To this bill, as amended, the circuit court again sustained a demurrer and dismissed it, and from that decree this appeal is taken.

The circuit and district judges have certified a division of opinion on eight propositions of law, which they believe to arise out of this demurrer, as follows:

I. Whether the frauds and perjury alleged in the bill as the equitable grounds for vacating the patent in question are frauds extrinsic and collateral to the matter tried and determined in the land office upon which the patent issued, and constitute such frauds as entitle the complainant to relief in a court of equity.

II. Whether perjury and false testimony in a proceeding before the land office, such as alleged in the said amended bill, by means of which a patent to a portion of the public land is fraudulently and wrongfully secured, is such a fraud as will require a court of equity to vacate the patent on that ground alone.

III. Whether the decision and determination of the questions involved on false and perjured testimony, as set forth in the said amended bill, and the issue of a patent thereon, are not conclusive as against the United States on a bill filed to vacate the patent so issued.

IV. When the United States files a bill to vacate a patent on the ground that it was fraudulently obtained upon false testimony, as alleged in said amended bill, whether it is necessary to offer in the bill to return the purchase money paid for the land by the patentee.

V. Whether a court of equity will enforce the penalties and forfeitures imposed by § 2262 of the Revised Statutes of the United States for obtaining a patent to land upon false affidavits.

VI. Whether the remedy at law provided by said section

Page 114 U. S. 237

and an indictment for perjury, are not the only remedies for the wrong alleged in the amended bill.

VII. The bill of complaint, having been originally filed in this case on June 19, 1883, more than seven years and five months after the issue of the patent, whether the claim to vacate the patent on the ground of fraud is stale, and whether the bill ought to be dismissed on that ground.

VIII. Whether he demurrer to the said amended bill should be sustained.

Page 114 U. S. 238

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