AMERICAN LAND CO. V. ZEISS, 219 U. S. 47 (1911)

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U.S. Supreme Court

American Land Co. v. Zeiss, 219 U.S. 47 (1911)

American Land Co. v. Zeiss

No. 230

Argued October 14, 17, 1910

Decided January 3, 1911

219 U.S. 47


The general welfare of society is involved in the security and registry of titles to real estate, and those subjects are within the police power of the state.

A state, in the exercise of its inherent power to legislate in regard to title to the soil within its confines, may, without violating the federal Constitution, require parties owning and in possession of land to establish title by judicial proceedings before properly constituted tribunals, and this power extends to nonresident owners of land who may be brought before such tribunals by publication.

A state possesses, and, after such a disaster to a community as befell San Francisco, California, by fire and earthquake in 1906, in which nearly all the public records of registered titles to real estate were destroyed, may exercise, the power to remedy the confusion and uncertainty arising from the catastrophe.

Undisclosed and unknown claimants are as dangerous to the stability of titles to real estate as other classes, and they are not deprived of their property without due process of law if compelled to establish their titles by judicial proceeding before a properly constituted tribunal on adequate published notice, if given an opportunity to be heard and properly protected in case of fraud.

A state statute, passed after such a catastrophe as visited San Francisco in 1906 for the purpose of reestablishing titles to real estate, which permits an action for that purpose to be brought by parties who are themselves, or by those holding under them, in actual and peaceable possession of the property described in the summons, and which requires the plaintiff to make affidavit before the summons is issued that he does not know and has never been informed of any adverse claimants not named in the summons, and also requires summons to be published at least once a week for two months, posted on each parcel of the property, and to be recorded and properly

Page 219 U. S. 48

indexed in the recorder's office and served upon all claimants whose names and whereabouts could be ascertained, gives an adequate opportunity to all persons interested in the property to establish their rights, and does not deprive unknown claimants of their property without due process of law.

The Fourteenth Amendment does not operate to deprive the states of their lawful power; the due process clause of that Amendment only restrains such exertions of power as are so unreasonable and unjust as to impair or destroy fundamental rights, and therefore not really within lawful power of the state.

This Court, in determining the constitutionality of a state statute, is bound by the construction given to it by the highest court of the state and will treat it as exacting whatever the state court has declared that it exacts either expressly or by implication.

In determining the constitutionality of a state statute under the due process clause, the criterion is not whether any injury to an individual is possible, but whether the requirements as to notice and opportunity to protect property rights affected are just and reasonable.

It being within the power of the state to determine how title to real estate shall be proved, it is also within the legislative competency of that state to establish the method of procedure.

Due process of law requires that there shall be jurisdiction of, and notice to, the parties, and opportunity to be heard, and, subject to these conditions, the state has power to regulate procedure. Twining v. New Jersey, 211 U. S. 78.

The California statute, c. 59, of June 16, 1906, to establish titles in case of loss of public records, passed after the earthquake and fire of April, 1906, as construed by the highest state court, is within the legislative power of the state, provides adequate notice and protection to unknown claimants, affords opportunity to be heard, and is not unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment as depriving unknown claimants of their property without due process of law.

As a result of the conditions caused in San Francisco by the great calamity of earthquake and fire which befell that city in April, 1906, an extraordinary session of the Legislature of California was convoked. One reason stated for the call was the necessity of providing for restoring the record title to land in San Francisco. An act to accomplish

Page 219 U. S. 49

that purpose became a law upon its approval on June 16, 1906. It is copied on the margin.*

The circuit court of appeals has certified the issues involved in a pending cause, the determination of which rests upon the validity of the statute just referred to. The pertinent facts arising on the record of the cause are stated in the certificate, and are hereafter set forth. The purpose contemplated is to obtain instructions as to

Page 219 U. S. 50

whether the act in question "is violative of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," and whether by virtue of a decree rendered by the Superior

Page 219 U. S. 51

Court of the City and County of San Francisco, referred to in the recital of facts, the American Land Company "has been deprived of its property without due process of law."

Page 219 U. S. 52

The following are the facts recited in the certificate:

"The appellant, as complainant in the court below, brought its bill in equity against the appellee to remove

Page 219 U. S. 53

a cloud from its title to real property, and to quiet its title thereto. The bill alleges on April 10, 1908, and at all the times prior thereto, referred to in the bill, George H. Lent

Page 219 U. S. 54

and Mary G. Coggeshall were severally the owners in fee simple of two adjacent lots of land in San Francisco, which lots are described in the bill. The lots and others similarly situated are known as city slip and water lots. Under the provisions of an Act of the Legislature of the State of California, approved March 5, 1851 (Stats. of 1851, p. 764), the state leased this property to the City of San Francisco for the term of ninety-nine years. The appellee is alleged to be the owner of the unexpired portion of this lease as successor in interest of the city's right, and to be entitled to the possession thereof until March 26, 1950. The bill alleges that the appellee has no right whatever other than this right of possession and occupation; that notwithstanding the premises, the appellee claims to be the owner in fee simple of said lands under a judgment and decree of the Superior Court of the State of California in and for the City and County of San Francisco, made and entered December 19, 1906, in a proceeding entitled 'Louis Zeiss, Plaintiff vs. All Persons Claiming Any Interest in or Lien upon the Real Property Herein

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Described, or Any Part Thereof, Defendants;' that said proceeding was brought under an act of the Legislature of the State of California entitled, 'An Act to Provide for the Establishment and Quieting of Title to Real Property in case of the Loss or Destruction of Public Records,' approved June 16, 1906; that said claim of the appellee under said decree is without right, and said decree is void; that, in the complaint in that proceeding, the appellee, after properly setting forth the destruction of the records, alleged that he was the owner in fee simple, free of encumbrance, of the lands which are described in the bill in this case, and that he prayed for a decree of the superior court adjudging his title to be as set forth by him; that at the time of filing his complaint he filed his affidavit setting forth the character of the estate, the source of his title, his possession, and stating that he had made no conveyance of the land, that there were no liens on it, and that he did not know and that he had never been informed of any other person who claimed or may claim any interest or lien upon the property, or any part thereof, adversely to him. The affidavit contained no averment that inquiry of any kind had been made to ascertain whether such adverse claim did exist. It is shown in the bill that in said proceeding under said act of the legislature, summons was published in the Law Recorder for the space of two months, and was also posted on the land, and after the period of publication of the summons the appellee herein obtained a decree of the court, as prayed for by him. The bill further alleges that, although the appellant's grantors were at all times citizens and residents of California, not seeking to evade, but ready to accept, service of summons, and easily reached for that purpose, no service was made upon them, nor did they in any way receive notice of the pendency of the action, nor did they gain any knowledge of the existence of the decree until more than a year after its entry. A demurrer

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was interposed to the bill in the court below for want of equity, which demurrer was sustained by the court and the bill was dismissed. "

Page 219 U. S. 58

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