Gaines v. Thompson

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Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

74 U.S. 347

Gaines  v.  Thompson

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia.

The Secretary of the Interior having directed the Commissioner of the Land Office to cancel an entry under which Gaines and others claimed an equitable right to certain lands in Arkansas, these last brought their suit in the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, praying that the secretary and commissioner should be enjoined from making such cancellation. The defendants entered their appearance, and Wilson, the commissioner, filed a plea. The substance of this plea was that the matters set up in the bill were within the exclusive control of the executive department of the government, the secretary and commissioner representing the President, and that the court had no jurisdiction or authority to interfere with the exercise of this power by injunction. In point of fact the validity of the entry in question depended upon the construction of certain acts of Congress, upon the meaning of which different secretaries of the interior had been so far divided that it was thought best to take the opinion of the Attorney-General upon their interpretation.

The court below, sustaining the plea, dismissed the bill; and the question on this appeal was the correctness of such action.

Mr. J. L. Brent, for the appellant, went largely into the merits of the respective claimants, to show that the proposed cancellation was wrong, and ought to be enjoined. He relied upon Lytle v. Arkansas [1] Cunningham v. Ashley, [2] Barnard's Heirs v. Ashley's Heirs, [3] Minnesota v. Bachelder, [4] and several other cases, in order to show that this court did constantly go into such merits and decide according to them, irrespective of decisions by the executive officers connected with the issue of patents.

Mr. Ashton, Assistant Attorney-General, contra, argued, that there were no functions within the range of the executive authority less ministerial in their character than those which devolved upon the officers of the land department in the administration of matters relating to the disposal of the public domain; that these officers had not merely the right, but were obliged to the duty of judgment and decision in them, and were directly responsible in determining the questions which arose before them only to the authority, within their own department of the public service, upon whom a supervisory jurisdiction had been conferred by statute.

The case was therefore within the principle which forbade judicial interference with the exercise of executive discretion; a principle lately so ably explained in this court in the case of Mississippi v. Johnson, [5] that it was almost unnecessary to refer to previous adjudications. [6]

All the cases, he contended, cited by the appellants, in which the courts had undertaken to review ultimately the action of the land office, were cases between private parties, litigated after the legal title had passed, by patent or otherwise, out of the government. That right was undisputed.

Mr. Justice MILLER delivered the opinion of the court.

Notes[edit]

^1  9 Howard, 329; 22 Id. 202.

^2  14 Id. 382.

^3  18 Id. 43.

^4  1 Wallace, 115.

^5  4 Wallace, 499.

^6  Kendall v. United States, 12 Peters, 609; Decatur v. Paulding, 14 Ib. 515; Kendall v. Stokes, 3 Howard, 98; Brashear v. Mason, 6 Ib. 101; Reeside v. Walker, 11 Ib. 289.

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).