Ard v. Brandon/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

156 U.S. 537

Ard  v.  Brandon

As these lands were not within the place limits of either the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad or the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway, and as they were within the indemnity limits of both roads, it is not open to question that the certification by the land department to the state of Kansas, and the conveyance by it to the railway company of the one tract, and the patent directly from the United States of the other, operated to transfer the legal title to these two tracts to the railway company; and also that the United States has no cause of action against the railway company or its grantees to disturb the legal title thus conveyed. Kansas City, L. & S. K. R. Co. v. Attorney General, 118 U.S. 682, 7 Sup. Ct. 66; U.S. v. Missouri, K. & T. Ry. Co., 141 U.S. 358, 12 Sup. Ct. 13. But it is equally clear, under the authority of the last-cited case, as well as of many others, that no adjudication against the government in a suit by it to set aside a patent estops an individual not a party thereto from thereafter setting up his equitable rights in the land for which the patent was issued. Referring to allegations in the bill of the United States in that case of matters very like those presented here, Mr. Justice Harlan, speaking for the court, said (page 379, 141 U.S., and page 13, 12 Sup. Ct.): 'If the facts are as thus alleged, it is clear that the Missouri-Kansas Company holds patents to land both within the place and indemnity limits of the Leavenworth road which equitably belong to bona fide settlers who acquired rights under the homestead and pre-emption laws, which were not lost by reason of the land department having, by mistake or an erroneous interpretation of the statutes in question, caused patents to be issued to the company.'

The question, therefore, is whether the cases disclose equitable rights in the defendant superior to the claims of the railway company. If his rights are only those which spring from his pre-emption entry and subsequent occupation of the lands, it may well be, as held by the supreme court of the state, that the decisions of the land department upon the questions of fact are conclusive against him. But we are of the opinion that the testimony shows a right anterior to his pre-emption entry,-a right of which he was deprived by the wrongful acts of the local land officer, and which he did not forfeit or lose by virtue of his subsequent efforts to pre-empt the land. According to this testimony, he had commenced improving the premises prior to July 14, 1866. He was qualified under the laws of the United States to make a homestead entry. The land was not within the place limits of either road, and had not been withdrawn by the land department from entry and settlement, for the orders of withdrawal were not made until March 19 and April 30, 1867. He had, therefore, on July 14th, when he went to the land office, the right to enter the entire 160 acres as a homestead. This right he demanded. He made out a homestead application for the land as described, and tendered the application and the land-office fees to the register of the land office; but the register rejected the application, giving as a reason therefor that the land was within the granted limits of the Leavenworth, Lawrence & Galveston Railroad, and was double minimum lands, and that 80 acres was the limit of homestead entry of such lands. As to this matter of fact the register was mistaken, and his rejection of the application was wrongful, and denied to defendant that homestead entry which under the law he was then entitled to. In the case of Shepley v. Cowan, 91 U.S. 330, 338, this court said (after referring to the cases of Frisbie v. Whitney, 9 Wall. 187, and the Yosemite Valley Case, 15 Wall. 77):

'But while, according to these decisions, no vested right as against the United States is acquired until all the prerequisites for the acquisition of the title have been complied with, parties may, as against each other acquire a right to be preferred in the purchase or other acquisition of the land, when the United States have determined to sell or donate the property. In all such cases, the first in time in the commencement of proceedings for the acquisition of the title, when the same are regularly followed up, is deemed to be the first in right. So, in this case, Chartrand, the ancestor, by his previous settlement in 1835 upon the premises in controversy, and residence with his family, and application to prove his settlement and enter the land, obtained a better right to the premises, under the law then existing, than that acquired by McPherson by his subsequent state selection in 1849. His right thus initiated could not be prejudiced by the refusal of the local officers to receive his proofs upon the declaration that the land was then reserved, if, in point of fact, the reservation had then ceased. The reservation was asserted, as already mentioned, on the ground that the land was then claimed as a part of the commons of Carondelet. So soon as the claim was held to be invalid to this extent by the decision of this court in March, 1862, the heirs of Chartrand presented anew their claim to pre-emption, founded upon a settlement of their ancestor.'

Within the authority of that case we think the defendant has shown an equity prior to all claims of the railway company. He had a right to enter the land as a homestead; he pursued the course of procedure prescribed by the statute; he made out a formal application for the entry, and tendered the requisite fees, and the application and the fees were rejected by the officer charged with the duty of receiving them, and worngfully rejected by him. Such wrongful rejection did not operate to deprive defendant of his equitable rights, nor did he forfeit or lose those rights because, after this wrongful rejection, he followed the advice of the register, and sought in another way to acquire title to the lands. The law deals tenderly with one who, in good faith, goes upon the public lands, with a view of making a home thereon. If he does all that the statute prescribes as the condition of acquiring rights, the law protects him in those rights, and does not make their continued existence depend alone upon the question whether or no he takes an appeal from an adverse decision of the officers charged with the duty of acting upon his application.

'The policy of the federal government in favor of settlers upon public lands has been liberal. It recognizes their superior equity to become the purchasers of a limited extent of land, comprehending their improvements, over that of any other person.' Clements v. Warner, 24 How. 394, 397.

There can be no question as to the good faith of the defendant. He went upon the land with the view of making it his home. He has occupied it ever since. He did all that was in his power in the first instance to secure the land as his homestead. That he failed was not his fault; it came through the wrongful action of one of the officers of the government. We do not mean to hold that the government or its grantees are concluded by the mere fact that one of its officers has given erroneous advice. If there was nothing more in this case than that the defendant consulted the officers of the land office as to how he could best obtain title to the land; that they gave him advice which was founded upon a mistake of fact, and was not good advice; that he pursued the plan they suggested, and yet failed to acquire the title,-he would have to bear the consequences of the error. But here a rightful application was wrongfully rejected. This was not a matter of advice, but of decision. Doubtless the error could have been corrected by an appeal, and perhaps that would have been the better way; but when, instead of pursuing that remedy, he is persuaded by the local land officer that he can accomplish that which he desires in another way,-a way that to him seems simpler and easier,-it would be putting too much of rigor and technicality into a remedial and beneficial statute like the homestead law to hold that the equitable rights which he had acquired by his application were absolutely lost.

For these reasons we are of opinion that there was error in the conclusion of the supreme court of the state of Kansas, and the judgments in these two cases are reversed for further proceedings in accordance with the views herein expressed.

Mr. Justice GRAY was not present at the argument, and took no part in the decision of these cases.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).