Goodtitle v. Kibbe/Opinion of the Court

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Goodtitle v. Kibbe
Opinion of the Court by Roger B. Taney

United States Supreme Court

50 U.S. 471

Goodtitle  v.  Kibbe

Having by the treaty with France, in 1803, acquired our title, and by the treaty with Spain, in 1819, termed on its face a treaty of cession, confirmed our possession to this territory, treaty stipulations and the law of nations arose to control the action of the government as strongly as if the duties were imposed by constitutional provision.

The annexation of this acquisition to the Mississippi Territory by the act of 1812 did not obstruct the exercise of those high duties, nor did the authority given by Congress that the State of Alabama might be carved out of it produce this consequence. The people of that State would have spurned an advantage founded upon a violation of national faith.

That Pollard's title was the subject of a confirmation by Congress is expressly ruled, when this case was first presented, in 14 Peters, the court there citing the decision of Judge Marshall in De la Croix v. Chamberlain, 'that the United States had never, as far as we can discover, distinguished between the concessions of land made by the Spanish authorities within the disputed territory, while Spain was in actual possession, from concessions of a similar character made by Spain within the acknowledged limits.' The court, therefore, concluded that Pollard's claim was within the exception of the act of 1824, reserving all cases where the Spanish government had made a 'new grant' during the time at which they had the 'power' to grant the same (p. 364).

All the circumstances constituting the history of the times justify the declaration that, in the admission of the State, neither of the contracting parties understood that the political obligations resting upon this government, as the successor of Spain, to perfect the titles of individuals acquired in good faith under Spanish dominion, were at all impaired; the more especially as it is not pretended that their fulfilment would in any manner work an injury to any public or private interest.

That the proprietorship of the soil between high and low tide belongs to the public, and may be acquired by individuals either by grant or prescription, is a doctrine of the common law, taught by Sir Matthew Hale in his treatise De Jure Maris (1 Hargrave's Law Tracts, p. 37), citing Bracton, who, in turn, quotes the Roman civil law from Justinian's Digest. Constable's case, 3 Co. 105, 107. There being but this distinction between the common and civil law, that the former confines this right to the 'sea-shore, arms of the sea, bays, and rivers where the tide ebbs and flows,' while the latter extends the right to include all 'navigable rivers.' Ingraham v. Wilkinson, 4 Pick. 273.

The government, therefore, had the right to grant to Pollard the fee of the soil, subject only to the restraints imposed by the public interest and convenience. Blundel v. Collvel, 5 Barn. & Ald. 267; Browne v. Kennedy, 5 Har. & Johns. 195; Hagan v. Campbell, 8 Port. 9; Mayor v. Eslava, 9 Port. 596.

The counsel for the defendant in error noticed this subject in his third and sixth points.

3. The decisions of this court reported in 3 Howard, 212, and 16 Peters, 367, are directly against the right of the United States to grant the shore after the admission of Alabama into the Union. Such being the law upon this question, the only inquiry is, whether the production of an incomplete Spanish title (a mere permit to occupy) can change the result. This court has repeatedly decided that such a paper can give the party no standing in the court, no matter when it was executed. 12 Wheaton, 599; 4 Howard, 449.

This court has also decided, that a complete grant bearing date at the time this does (1809) can give the party no right to be heard in the courts of the United States. Foster v. Neilson, 2 Peters, 253; 12 Peters, 511.

The party cannot, then, rest upon his Spanish title.

6. The opinion of the Supreme Court, reported in 3 Howard, 212, was very deliberately given. A motion for a rehearing was refused. The opinion comprehends within its principle property to a very large amount, and possessions and contracts have been made with respect to it.

In the State of Alabama, the Supreme Court has repeatedly acted in accordance with it, and has regarded it as the settled law of the land. An opinion so given, entering so far into the law of property of the country, cannot be questioned without producing great confusion. 8 Ala. 909, 930; 7 Ala. 883.

Mr. Chief Justice TANEY delivered the opinion of the court.

This is an action of ejectment brought by the plaintiff in error to recover a lot of ground in the town of Mobile, in the State of Alabama. The plaintiff claimed title under an inchoate Spanish grant, dated, December 12, 1809, and an act of Congress confirming this title, passed July 2, 1836, and a patent from the United States, dated March 15, 1837, which issued in pursuance of the act of Congress.

The validity of this title was disputed by the defendant, upon the ground that the premises were a part of the shore of a navigable tide-water river, lying below high-water mark, when the State of Alabama was admitted into the Union in 1819; and that therefore, at the time of the passage of the act of Congress, the sovereignty and dominion over the place in question were in the State, and not in the United States. And the court instructed the jury, that, if the land described in the plaintiff's declaration was below ordinary high-water mark at the time Alabama was admitted into the Union, the confirming act of Congress and the patent conveyed no title to the patentee.

The question decided in the State court cannot be regarded as an open one. The same question upon the same act of Congress and patent was brought before this court in the case of Pollard v. Hagan, at January term, 1845, reported in 3 Howard, 212. That case was fully and deliberately considered, as will appear by the report, and the court then decided that the act of Congress and patent conveyed no title. The decision of the Supreme Court of Alabama, from which this case has been brought by writ of error, conforms to the opinion of this court in the case of Pollard v. Hagan. And it must be a very strong case indeed, and one where mistake and error had been evidently committed, to justify this court, after the lapse of five years, in reversing its own decision; thereby destroying rights of property which may have been purchased and paid for in the mean time, upon the faith and confidence reposed in the judgment of this court. But, upon a review of the case, we see no reason for doubting its correctness, and are entirely satisfied with the judgment then pronounced.

It has been supposed, in the argument for the plaintiff, that the proceedings in Congress upon the report of the commissioners in relation to the title claimed under the Spanish authorities, which have now been referred to, distinguish this case from that of Pollard v. Hagan. But this Spanish title was acquired in 1809, and it has been repeatedly decided that a Spanish grant in this territory, whether inchoate or complete, made after the treaty of St. Ildefonso, in 1800, did not convey any right in the soil to the grantee. And this subject was again considered and decided, after careful research and examination, at the present term, in the case of Reynes v. United States, and the former decisions reaffirmed. Undoubtedly, Congress might have granted this land to the patentee, or confirmed his Spanish grant, before Alabama became a State. But this was not done. And the existence of this imperfect and inoperative Spanish grant could not enlarge the power of the United States over the place in question after Alabama became a State, nor authorize the general government to grant or confirm a title to land when the sovereignty and dominion over it had become vested in the State.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Alabama is therefore affirmed.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Supreme Court of the State of Alabama, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and adjudged by this court, that the judgment of the said Supreme Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby, affirmed, with costs.


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).