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U.S. Supreme Court

O'Neil v. Northern Colorado Irrigation Co., 242 U.S. 20 (1916)

O'Neil v. Northern Colorado Irrigation Company

No. 68

Argued November 6, 1916

Decided November 20, 1916

242 U.S. 20




Under the laws of Colorado here applicable, as construed by her highest court, a suit by a claimant of a water right in one water district to contest a water priority defined by a general adjudication in another is barred if not brought within four years from the rendition of the decree.

A state law which provides for a public adjudication of property rights in a given subject matter and declares that even persons who are not entitled to be heard in the proceeding shall ultimately be bound does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment quoad such persons if it allows them an adequate opportunity, including a reasonable time, to assert their rights in other judicial proceedings.

A judicial construction of a statute, supportable by frank reasoning and not subversive of any earlier judicial construction upon which a party might be held to have relied, does not deprive him of due process though it take him by surprise and come too late for him to act upon it, and thus save his rights.

A departure by state decision from a rule of property established by earlier state decisions may not be relied on, without more, as a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Sauer v. New York, 206 U. S. 536; Chicago & Alton R. Co. v. Tranbarger, 238 U. S. 67.

56 Colo. 545 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 242 U. S. 24

MR. JUSTICE HOLMES delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a complaint brought by the plaintiff in error to quiet his title to alleged water rights on Tarryall Creek, a tributary of the South Platte River, and to enjoin the defendant Irrigation Company and the state officials from closing the plaintiff's ditch under an assertion of the Irrigation Company's superior right. The defendants justified under a decree establishing the Irrigation Company's priority and a statute making the decree conclusive after four years. The plaintiff replied and argued that the statutes, if construed to have the alleged effect, took his property without due process of law, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment. The defendants demurred, and the state courts upheld the defense. 56 Colo. 545.

The case is this: in 1879, the state established water districts, the plaintiff's water rights being in District 23 and the defendant's in District 8, directly below 23, upon the South Platte. Jurisdiction was conferred upon the district courts for the proper county to adjudicate all questions concerning priority of appropriation and other questions of right between "owners of ditches drawing

Page 242 U. S. 25

water for irrigation purposes from the same stream or its tributaries within the same water district." Laws of 1879, Feb.19, § 19, p. 99. Rev.Stats. 1908, § 3276. The provisions were enlarged by an Act of February 23, 1881, p. 142, but still seemingly confined to controversies between parties in the same district, until they came to the sections of limitation. By § 34, the act was not to prevent suits within four years, and, by § 35, after

"four years from the time of rendering a final decree, in any water district, all parties whose interests are thereby affected shall be deemed and held to have acquiesced in the same . . . , and thereafter all persons shall be forever barred from setting up any claim to priority of rights to water for irrigation in such water district adverse or contrary to the effect of such decree."

Laws of 1881, pp. 159-160. Rev.Stats. 1908, §§ 3313, 3314. Later statutes were enacted in 1887 and 1903, creating divisions and requiring the irrigation division engineers to tabulate the priorities and rights as established by decree in the different districts of their divisions, and to administer the use of water accordingly. But these statutes are not material. The parties' rights were held to be fixed under the Act of 1881.

On December 10, 1883, the proper court for the defendant company's district made a decree that the company was entitled to a priority of right to the use of water for irrigation purposes of 1184 cubic feet of water per second from the South Platte and its tributaries, dated January 18, 1879, which was prior to the date of the plaintiff's rights. It will be observed that the Act of 1881 was in force when this decree was made. The plaintiff contends that the construction of § 35 of the act, as applying to parties in a different district, this construction having been first announced after the period of limitation had gone by, had the effect of a new statute declaring his rights barred by time already elapsed, and attempted to

Page 242 U. S. 26

make conclusive against him a proceeding to which he was not a party, and in which he would not have been heard.

So far as the last objection goes, the answer is that, if it be true that the plaintiff was not entitled to be heard on the defendant's decree, still there was nothing to hinder the state from providing that, if he took no step to assert his rights within a reasonable time after the judicial assertion of an adverse title, the decree being a public fact, he should lose those rights. See Barker v. Harvey, 181 U. S. 481; Soper v. Lawrence Bros. Co., 201 U. S. 359, 201 U. S. 367-368; American Land Co. v. Zeiss, 219 U. S. 47, 219 U. S. 60; Montoya v. Gonzales, 232 U. S. 375, 232 U. S. 378. The answer to the first half of the plaintiff's contention is no less plain. It is that the construction of a statute does not take a party's property without due process of law simply because it takes him by surprise, and when it is too late for him to act on the construction and save his rights. That is all that the plaintiff has to complain of. There was no different construction of the statute by the court before the limitation had run that might have lulled him to repose. The only decisions relied upon by the plaintiff as tending to favor him are Nichols v. McIntosh, 19 Colo. 22, and Sterling Irrig. Co. v. Downer, 19 Colo. 595, which were not rendered until 1893 and 1894, and both of which are consistent with Ft. Lyon Canal Co. v. Arkansas Valley Sugar Beet & Irrig. Land Co., 39 Colo. 332, establishing the construction followed in this case. It should be added that, however strong the argument for a different interpretation, the one adopted also was strongly supported, so that there can be no pretense that a perverse reading of the law was used as an excuse for giving a retrospective effect to the law of 1903. The decision was absolutely entitled to respect.

It is suggested that the cases cited established a rule of

Page 242 U. S. 27

property, and that any departure from it violated the plaintiff's rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. But we already have said that the cases do not establish the rule supposed, and, if they did, something more would be necessary before the plaintiff could come to this court. Sauer v. New York, 206 U. S. 536, 206 U. S. 547-548; Chicago & Alton R. Co. v. Tranbarger, 238 U. S. 67, 238 U. S. 76.

Judgment affirmed.

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