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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Southern Pacific R. Co., 184 U.S. 49 (1902)

United States v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company

No. 25

Argued April 18-19, 1901

Decided January 27, 1902

184 U.S. 49


This case is a continuation of Southern Pacific Railroad Co. v. United States, 188 U. S. 1, brought to quiet the title of the government to lands within the limits of the forfeited grant to the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company. The questions in this case arise between the United States and parties holding title or claiming rights to lands by deed from or contract with the railroad company. The title of the company having been adjudged void, the Acts of March 3, 1887, 24 Stat. 556; of February 12, 1896, 29 Stat. 8; of March 2, 1896, 29 Stat. 42, were passed for the purpose

Page 184 U. S. 50

of upholding the titles of parties who, in good faith, had purchased lands from railroad companies which, though supposed to be part of their grants, proved not to be so. The first section of the Act of March 2, 1896, reads:

"But no patent to any lands held by a bona fide purchaser shall be vacated or annulled, but the right and title of such purchaser is hereby confirmed."

Held: 1. That the facts bring this case within the provisions of that section, and that the Circuit Court rightly confirmed the title to lands patented under it; 2. That the unpatented lands were so situated with reference to the constructed road of the Southern Pacific, as to be within the scope of its grant, and that the act was not intended to be limited to cases of purchases from the railroad company prior to its date; 3. That while the act was remedial, and to be liberally construed, yet to sustain the purchase in controversy in this case as one made in good faith would ignore the plainest provisions of law in respect to bona fide purchasers, and would uphold almost any kind of speculative purchase.

This is a continuation of the case which was before this Court and decided in 1897. 168 U. S. 168 U.S. 1. It was brought to quiet the title of the government to some 700,000 acres or land within the limits of the forfeited grant the Atlantic & Pacific Railroad Company, and claimed by the defendants under certain junior grants to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. The decree in the circuit court quieted, as against the Southern Pacific Company, the title of the government to all the lands. The other defendants asserted title or claimed rights to certain portions of the land by virtue of conveyances from or contracts with the Southern Pacific Company, and the decree provided:

"Nor shall this decree in any wise affect any rights which the defendants, or any of them, other than the said Southern Pacific Railroad Company, now have or may hereafter acquire in, to, or respecting any of the lands hereinbefore described, in virtue of the act of Congress entitle 'An Act to Provide for the Adjustment of Land Grants Made by Congress to Aid in the Construction of Railroads and for the Forfeiture of Unearned Lands and for Other Purposes,' approved March 3, 1887."

This decree was affirmed by this Court so far as the Southern Pacific Company as well as the trustees in its mortgage were concerned, the Court saying in reference to that portion of the decree just quoted (p. 168 U. S. 65):

Page 184 U. S. 51

"Instead of leaving undetermined the matters in dispute between the United States and the defendants other than the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the circuit court should have determined, by its final decree, what rights those defendants have by virtue of the above Act of March 3, 1887, 24 Stat. 556, c. 376, in the lands or any of them now in dispute and claimed by the United States. The effect of the decree is to leave undetermined the question whether the defendants who claim under the Southern Pacific Railroad Company are protected by that or any other act of Congress. The government was entitled to a decree quieting its title to all the lands described in its pleadings, except those, if any, that are protected, in the hands of claimants, by acts of Congress. United States v. Winona & St. Peter Railroad, 165 U. S. 463; Winona & St. Peter Railroad v. United States, 165 U. S. 483. But, as the government has not appealed, the decree cannot be reversed for the error of the circuit court in not finally disposing of the issues between the United States and the individual defendants who claim under the Southern Pacific Railroad Company."

"The result is that the decree must be affirmed in all respects as to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, as well as to the trustees in the mortgage executed by that company, and affirmed also as to the other defendants, subject, however, to the right of the government to proceed in the circuit court to a final decree as to those defendants, and it is so ordered."

On the return of the mandate to the circuit court, the United States dismissed their bill against the defendants other than the railroad company and its mortgage trustee, without prejudice as to all except certain specified tracts amounting in the aggregate to about 52,600 acres, of which amount 9,284 were patented by the United States to the Southern Pacific, the patents bearing date March 29, 1876, April 4, 1879, December 27, 1883, and January 9, 1885, and 43,315 remained unpatented. In respect to these tracts, the case proceeded to final hearing, which resulted in a decree in favor of the defendants, 88 F.8d 2, confirming their title to the lands patented, and adjudging them bona fide purchasers within the meaning of the Act of Congress of March 3, 1887, of the lands not patented. From

Page 184 U. S. 52

this decree the United States appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which affirmed the decree, 98 F. 45, and thereupon the United States brought the case here on appeal.

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