Weber v. Rogan/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

188 U.S. 10

Weber  v.  Rogan

 Argued: December 1, 1902. --- Decided: January 19, 1903


At the time the petitioner made his applications to the commissioner of the land office for the purchase of these lands, the following law was in force (2 Batt's Rev. Stat. art. 4218y):

'The commissioner of the general land office may withhold from lease any agricultural lands necessary for the purpose of settlement, and no agricultural lands shall be leased if, in the judgment of the commissioner, they may be in immediate demand for settlement, but such lands shall be held for settlement and sold to the actual settlers only, under the provisions of this chapter; and all sections and fractions of sections, in all counties organized prior to the 1st day of January, 1875, except El Paso, Presidio, and Pecos counties, which sections are isolated and detached from other public lands, may be sold to any purchaser, except to a corporation, without actual settlement, at $1 per acre, upon the same terms as other public lands are sold under the provisions of this chapter.' Acts 1897, chap. 129.

The supreme court held that the determination of the case depended upon the question whether it was made by this law the imperative duty of the commissioner of the land office to sell all isolated and detached sections and parts of sections of the public free school lands to the first applicant without regard to their classification; and that that construction depended upon the question whether the words 'may be sold to any purchaser' implied a discretion in the commissioner to refuse, or was to be understood as equivalent to 'shall,' which would imply a duty upon the part of the commissioner to sell to any purchaser at the price fixed, of $1 per acre. At first the court was of opinion that the word 'may' was used in the sense of 'shall;' that no discretion was vested in the commissioner; that the general provisions regulating the sale of public school lands did not apply to isolated and detached sections and fractions of sections; that they required no classification or appraisement; that the law of 1897 fixed their purchase price absolutely at $1 per acre; and that all that was necessary to acquire an inchoate title was to make application to the commissioner and tender the proportion of the purchase money, required by law to be paid in cash, together with the statutory obligations for the balance. Upon rehearing, the opinion of the court was changed, and the majority came to the conclusion that the word 'may,' as used in the statute, ought to be construed in its literal sense, and as merely conferring the power upon the commissioner to sell land at $1 per acre, but not making it obligatory upon him to do so. The mandamus was denied. Another rehearing was also denied.

There is hardly a semblance of a Federal question in this case. None such was noticed in the original petition or in either opinion of the court; and it was not until after an application was made for a rehearing that petitioner discovered that the act of the legislature of 1895, as amended by the act of 1897 (Rev. Stat. 4218y), above cited, constituted a contract on the part of the state to sell all isolated and detached sections and fractions of sections of public school lands to any purchaser who would offer $1 per acre therefor, which had been impaired by the supreme court of the state in holding that the commissioner of the land office might refuse to execute such contract by declining to award the lands applied for, and therefore violated its obligation.

We agree with the supreme court of the state that no contract was created by this statute. Hence, there was none to be impaired. We had occasion to hold in Central Land Co. v. Laidley, 159 U.S. 103, 40 L. ed. 91, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 80, that we have no jurisdiction of a writ of error to a state court upon the ground that the obligation of a contract has been impaired, when the validity of the statute under which the contract is made is admitted, and the only question is as to the construction of the statute by that court; and in the same case, as well as in Hanford v. Davies, 163 U.S. 273, 41 L. ed. 157, 16 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1051, we held that the constitutional inhibition applies only to the legislative enactments of the state, and not to judicial decisions or the acts of state tribunals or officers under statutes in force at the time of the making of the contract, the obligation of which is alleged to have been impaired.

In addition to this, however, the question was not made until after the final decision of the state court, and upon application for a rehearing. This was clearly too late. Miller v. Texas, 153 U.S. 535, 38 L. ed. 812, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 874.

The writ of error is dismissed.

Notes[edit]

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).