Craig v. Leitensdorfer
123 U.S. 189 (1881)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Craig v. Leitensdorfer, 123 U.S. 189 (1887)

Craig v. Leitensdorfer

Argued October 12-13, 1887

Decided October 31, 1881

123 U.S. 189

Syllabus

If an official act of an executive officer in the Land Office is challenged for error of law or for fraud in a judicial proceeding between private parties in a court of the United States, no jurisdiction attaches unless the controversy relates to rights existing in the parties, or one of them, derived from the act and unless definite relief or redress under some known head of judicial jurisdiction is demanded.

The Acts of June 21, 1860, 12 Stat. 71, and February 25, 1569, 15 Stat. 275, having referred to the Land Office and the Department of the Interior the adjustment of the claims of settlers within the Las Animas grant in Colorado, and their definition by the prescribed surveys and plats, and of all questions of possession and of boundary and of conflict, the free course of that administration, within the limit of the law, cannot be interrupted or interfered with by the judicial power.

If the plaintiff's contention is well founded that the duty of the Commissioner of the General Land Office to take up, hear, and determine his appeal exists, that duty, so far as relates to entering upon its performance, is strictly ministerial, and his remedy is at law by mandamus, and not in equity.

The controversy in this case being confined to the conflicting claims of actual settlers "holding possession under titles or promises to settle" made by Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain, and established under the provisions of the Acts of June 21, 1860, 12 Stat. 71, and February 25, 1869, 15 Stat. 275, and it appearing from the pleadings, as amended, that the plaintiff below did not aver an equitable interest in himself in the lands which here so established in favor of the defendant, and that the only remedy which he sought was to have it judicially determined that the defendant's title was obtained by means of the fraudulent act

Page 123 U. S. 190

of an executive officer in the Land Office, whereby the plaintiff was illegally deprived of a right of appeal from the decision of that officer touching his own claims, held that the pleadings presented no question to give a circuit court jurisdiction in equity over the case.

Under the treaty with Mexico of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain claimed title, under a Mexican grant made in 1843, to a large tract of land embraced within the Huerfano, Pisipa, and Cucharos Rivers to their junction with the Arkansas and Animas, known as the "Las Animas Grant," and supposed to cover and include about twenty-two square leagues, lying in the Territory of New Mexico, but within the limits of the present State of Colorado, and equivalent to four million of acres.

By the act to confirm certain private land claims in the Territory of New Mexico approved June 21, 1860, 12 Stat. 71, Congress confirmed the claim of Vigil and St. Vrain, but only to the extent of eleven square leagues to each of said claimants. By the second section of that act, it was provided

"That, in surveying the claims of said Cornelio Vigil and Cerap St. Vrain, the location shall be made as follows, namely, he survey shall first be made of all tracts occupied by actual settlers holding possession under titles or promises to settle, which have heretofore been given by said Vigil and St. Vrain, in the tracts claimed by them, and after deducting the area of all such tracts from the area embraced in twenty-two square leagues, the remainder shall be located in two equal tracts, each of square form, in any part of the tract claimed by the said Vigil and St. Vrain selected by them, and it shall be the duty of the Surveyor General of New Mexico immediately to proceed to make the surveys and locations authorized and required by the terms of this section."

The fourth section of the act provides

"That the foregoing confirmation shall only be construed as quitclaims or relinquishments on the part of the United States, and shall not affect the adverse rights of any other person or persons whomsoever."

This statute was amended by the Act of February 25, 1869, 15 Stat. 275, 440, as follows:

Page 123 U. S. 191

"Chapter XLVII -- An act to amend an act entitled 'An act to confirm certain private land claims in the Territory of New Mexico.'"

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled that the exterior lines of the Cornelio Vigil and Ceran St. Vrain claims of eleven leagues each, subject to claims derived from said parties as confirmed by the Act of Congress approved twenty-first June, 1860, United States Statutes, volume twelve, page seventy-one, shall be adjusted according to the lines of the public surveys, as nearly as practicable, with the limits of said claims, yet in as compact a form as possible, and the claims of all actual settlers upon the tracts heretofore claimed by the said Vigil and St. Vrain, holding possession under titles or promises to settle, which have been made by said Vigil and St. Vrain, or their legal representatives, prior to the passage of this act, who may establish their claims within one year from the passage of this act, to the satisfaction of the register and receiver of the proper and district, shall in like manner be adjusted according to the subdivisional lines of survey, so as to include the lands so settled upon or purchased, and the areas of the same shall be deducted and excluded from the adjusted limits of the claims of said Vigil and St. Vrain, respectively, and the claims of all other actual settlers falling within the limits of the located claims of Vigil and St. Vrain shall be adjusted to the extent which shall embrace their several settlements upon their several claims being established either as preemption or homesteads, according to law, and for the aggregate of the areas of the latter class of claims the said Vigil and St. Vrain, or their legal representatives, shall be entitled to locate a like quantity of public lands, not mineral, according to the lines of the public surveys, and not to exceed one hundred and sixty acres in one section."

"SEC. 2. And be it further enacted that it shall be the duty of the General Land Office to cause the lines of the public surveys to be run in the regions where a proper location would place the said Vigil and St. Vrain claims, and that the expense of the same shall be paid out of any moneys in the Treasury

Page 123 U. S. 192

not otherwise appropriated; yet before the confirmation of the said Act of June 21, 1860, shall become legally effective, the said Vigil and St. Vrain, or their legal representatives, shall pay the cost of so much of said surveys as inures to their benefit respectively, and that all settlers of the said third class whose claims may be adjusted as valid shall have the right to enter their improvements by a strict compliance with the preemption or homestead laws."

"SEC. 3. And be it further enacted that, upon the adjustment of the Vigil and St. Vrain claims according to the provisions of this act, it shall be the duty of the Surveyor General of the district to furnish proper approved plats to said claimants or their legal representatives, and so in like manner to said derivative claimants, which shall be evidence of title, the same to be done according to such instructions as may be given by the Commissioner of the General Land Office."

"SEC. 4. And be it further enacted that immediately upon running the lines as provided in section second of this act, the Surveyor General of said district shall notify the said Vigil and St. Vrain, or their agents or legal representatives, of the fact of such survey being made, and said claimants shall, within three months after notice of such survey, select and locate their said claims in accordance with such survey, and the provisions of this act, and of the act to which this is amendatory, so far as the same is not changed by this act, and shall within said time furnish the Surveyor General with the description of such location, specifying the lines of the same. And the parties failing to make such selection and location in such manner and within such time shall be deemed and held to have abandoned their claim, and their rights and equities under this act, and the act to which this is amendatory shall cease and terminate."

"SEC. 5. And be it further enacted that in case of the neglect or refusal of the said Vigil and St. Vrain, or either of them, to accept of the provisions of this act and the act to which this is amendatory, and to locate their said claims as provided therein, no suit shall be brought or proceedings instituted

Page 123 U. S. 193

in any of the courts of the United States by such party or by anyone claiming through or under them, to establish or enforce said claims, or for any cause of action founded upon the same, after six months from the passage of this act."

The time fixed by § 1 of the last-recited act for establishing the derivative claims was extended by a joint resolution of April 28, 1870, 16 Stat. 373, 663, by which it was directed that the act should be so construed

"as to authorize the presentation of such derivative claims within one year from the completion and approval of the subdivisional surveys contemplated by said act of twenty-fifth February, 1869."

In pursuance of the Act of February 25, 1869, and within the time limited by the joint resolution of April 28, 1870, there were presented to Irving W. Stanton and Charles A. Cook, the Register and Receiver at Pueblo, Colorado, claims on behalf of about thirty-nine derivative claimants to lands within the limits of the Las Animas grant, covering in all more than 183,553.85 acres. Among them was the claim of William Craig for 127,000 acres, and that of Thomas Leitensdorfer for about 16,000 acres, which were filed on the 23d of October, 1872. The register and receiver acted upon all the claims, rejecting that of Leitensdorfer and twenty-two others amounting to more than 85,939.32 acres. They decided favorably, in whole or in part, on thirteen claims. To twelve of these claimants they allowed 24,362.98 acres; the remaining 73,251.55 acres were awarded to Craig. The decisions of these officers upon these claims bear date February 23, 1874, and were immediately reported to the General Land Office. Nineteen of the claimants whose claims had been rejected, and among them Leitensdorfer, appealed from the decisions in favor of Craig, and against themselves, respectively. The Commissioner of the General Land Office entertained the appeals so far as to decide that an appeal would lie in such cases, and from that decision Craig appealed from the Commissioner of the General Land Office to the Secretary of the Interior. This appeal was entertained, and the Secretary of the Interior rendered a decision sustaining the authority of the Commissioner of the General

Page 123 U. S. 194

Land Office to entertain and determine the appeals from the register and receiver.

About the 25th or May, 1875, Craig applied to the President for an order directing that the Surveyor General of Colorado be required to issue a plat of the survey of the land awarded to Craig by the decision of the register and receiver. Being advised by the Attorney General, to whom the matter was referred, that under the terms of the acts of Congress relating to the subject, the decisions of the register and receiver were final, from which no appeal would lie to the Commissioner, 15 Opinions Attorneys General 94, the President, on March 2, 1877, made an order directing the Commissioner of the General Land Office to instruct the Surveyor General of Colorado to deliver to Craig an approved plat of the land adjudged to him by the register and receiver of the Pueblo Land District in the State of Colorado dated February 23, 1874. The Commissioner of the General Land Office on March 7, 1877, instructed the Surveyor General of Colorado to prepare a plat of the lands specified and awarded by the register and receiver to Craig.

Before that plat was delivered, Leitensdorfer, on May 4, 1877, filed his bill in equity in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Colorado against William L. Campbell, the Surveyor General of the United States for Colorado, and Craig. In this bill he set out the matters above stated, and in addition thereto alleged that his own title was derived by mesne conveyances from Eugene Leitensdorfer, to whom Vigil and St. Vrain had conveyed an undivided one-sixth of the entire grant to them, which would have amounted to about 682,724 1/6 acres if the whole grant had been confirmed, but which he had reduced to twenty-five sections, amounting to about 16,000 acres, to correspond with the reduced grant as confirmed by act of Congress. The bill further alleged that the reduced tract thus claimed by the complainant before the register and receiver was in or near the valleys of the Las Animas or Purgatoire River and tributaries, in Pueblo Land District, Las Animas County, Colorado, naming and identifying certain sections and half-sections

Page 123 U. S. 195

as composing it, and admitted that the claim of the complainant, as thus reduced, did not conflict on the ground with the derivative claim of Craig.

The bill further alleged that the complainant produced evidence before the register and receiver to establish, in addition to the preceding allegations of his bill, "the continuous inhabitancy and cultivation of his claim by himself since May, 1862, which inhabitancy and cultivation still continue."

The bill also alleged that the final delivery by the Surveyor General of the plat of survey of the derivative claims of Craig, as ordered by the President, would be merely a ministerial act of the Surveyor General, and therefore the subject of an injunction; that such plats, under § 3 of the Act of February 25, 1869, could only issue after the final adjustment of the whole of said confirmation of twenty-two leagues, and of the several derivative claims constituting the same, and that said plats, when so furnished, would be evidence of title, and would divest the United States of the fee simple in favor of the derivative claimants receiving such plats;

"that the plat ordered to be delivered by the Surveyor General to or for Craig would leave no part of said confirmation applicable to complainant's claim or the claims of the other derivative claimants whose appeals are now pending before the Commissioner, and would in fact preclude the Commissioner from considering the appeals of complainant and of the other derivative claimants; that complainant's claim is not in conflict on the ground with Craig's claim, but is many miles distant, and the mass of the derivative claims under Vigil and St. Vrain, though greatly exceeding the quantity confirmed, are competitors for area, but not for specific locations; that for these reasons the delivery of Craig's plat, or of the plat of any derivative claim whatever, before the final decision by the Commissioner and Secretary of the said appeals now pending before the Commissioner, and the final adjustment by them of the whole mass of said derivative claims, would be against equity and the rights of complainant and other appellants in said appeals, and would inflict on complainant and said appellants irreparable injury. "

Page 123 U. S. 196

The prayer of the bill was for a perpetual injunction to restrain the delivery of the plat and survey of the derivative claim of Craig

"until the appeals of complainant and of the other derivative claimants under them, now pending before the Commissioner of the General Land Office, shall be tried and finally adjudged on their merits, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, according to law, and until it shall appear by such final judgment that said Craig, or other derivative claimants under said Vigil and St. Vrain, or either, are entitled to plats as evidence of title,"

and also for an injunction to the same effect in the meantime. The bill also contained a general allegation to the effect that the register and receiver were corrupted by Craig, and fraudulently induced to make the award in his favor.

On the 21st of May, 1877, a temporary injunction was granted as prayed for on certain conditions, one of which was that the complainant, within thirty days, should

"commence proceedings in the proper court of the District of Columbia having for their object an order on the General Land Office to hear and determine the appeals mentioned and described in the said bill of complaint as having been taken by the said complainant from the decision of the register and receiver of the land office at Pueblo in respect to the lands described in the said bill."

On the 25th of June, 1877, an affidavit was filed showing that on the 19th of June the complainant had caused to be filed in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia a petition and affidavit for a mandamus against the Commissioner of the General Land Office praying for a writ commanding him to proceed to hear and determine the said appeals.

On July 13, 1877, the present case was heard on a demurrer to the bill, and on a motion to dissolve the injunction, when an order was made dissolving the injunction and sustaining the demurrer, with leave to the complainant to file an amended and supplemental bill, which he accordingly did. That bill, filed on October 6, 1877, reciting all the matters contained in the original bill, alleges in addition that, in the Supreme

Page 123 U. S. 197

Court of the District of Columbia on July 3, 1877, the motion of the complainant for a rule on the Commissioner of the General Land Office to show cause why the writ of mandamus should not issue against him to require him to proceed with the hearing of the appeals alleged to be pending before him, was denied by that court at special term on the ground, among others, that no appeal lay to the Commissioner of the General Land Office from such decisions, and that he did not appeal from said judgment, because he was advised by counsel that no appeal would lie from such a judgment. The bill further alleges that, after the dissolution of the injunction, the Commissioner of the General Land Office delivered to Craig an approved plat of the survey of the lands according to the area allowed to him by the register and receiver at Pueblo.

The bill reiterates the charges of corruption and fraud as against Craig and the register and receiver in the original bill, and further shows

"That, for the reasons hereinbefore stated, said duplicate plats of defendant Craig are intrinsically illegal and void ab initio, and that Craig had or has no title to said lands, St. Vrain having sold his interest before Craig purchased; that the order of the President, which said plats are intended to enforce, is also, for reasons hereinbefore stated, intrinsically illegal and void ab initio, and was granted under the erroneous belief by the President that no controversy existed respecting the quantity of land embraced in said plats; that said plats were issued in mistake of law and fact, and leave no land applicable to the derivative claims of your orator and the other said appellants before the Commissioner of the General Land Office, and in fact prevent him from trying their appeals now lawfully pending before him, and are in the nature of a cloud on the titles of your orator and the said appellants to their respective derivative claims, and that your orator fears said duplicate plats, if left uncancelled, would cause irreparable mischief to him and to all the other said appellants before the said Commissioner."

The prayer of the amended bill, therefore, is that

"the approved plats of the derivative claim of defendant William

Page 123 U. S. 198

Craig, signed by defendant Campbell on the 26th of May, 1877, be decreed void from the beginning, and that said defendant William Craig be forever enjoined from prosecuting any suit in law or equity on said approved plat or plats as evidence of title, or that Craig be adjudged as holding the same in trust for plaintiff and other derivative claimants, and that defendant William Craig, and agents, and defendant William L. Campbell, as United States Surveyor General of Colorado, and his successors in office, and all under them, be ordered, within a time to be limited by this Court, to deliver the said plats to the court, and that the said plats be thereupon cancelled, and he prays for all other general and special relief applicable to the case."

To this amended and supplemental bill Campbell and Craig filed separate demurrers. The demurrer of Campbell was sustained, and the bill as to him ordered to be dismissed. The demurrer of Craig was overruled, and thereupon, on the 7th of October, 1878, Craig filed his answer to the amended bill.

The answer of Craig denies the title of Leitensdorfer to any interest in the land, and asserts the title of Craig himself to the land awarded to him by the decision of the register and receiver; it denies all charges of fraud and corruption against them and himself, and claims that the award and decision of the register and receiver, under the Act of Congress of February 25, 1869, is final and conclusive, subject to no appeal to the Commissioner of the General Land Office or to the Secretary of the Interior, and sets up the decision and judgment of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia dismissing the application for a mandamus as a conclusive judgment on the question. A replication was filed to this answer, and, the cause being put at issue, a large amount of proof was taken consisting of documentary evidence and the testimony of witnesses.

It further appears that after the 4th of March, 1877, when a new administration came into office, an application was made to the Secretary of the Interior on behalf of the complainant asking for a stay of proceedings under the order of the President, and that the matter might be reopened for hearing before

Page 123 U. S. 199

the Commissioner of the General Land Office on the appeal from the decision of the register and receiver. This application was referred to the Attorney General, who gave an opinion that the official acts of the officers of the preceding administration could not be reviewed by their successors in office. 15 Opinions Attorneys General 208.

On the 8th of January, 1878, a patent was issued by the United States to William Craig, and to his heirs and assigns forever, for the land included within the approved plat, in conformity, as it recites, with § 2447 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, and with the stipulation that, in virtue of the provisions of that section, the patent

"shall only operate as a relinquishment of title on the part of the United States, and shall in no manner interfere with any valid adverse right to the same land nor be construed to preclude a legal investigation and decision by the proper judicial tribunal between adverse claimants to the same land."

On January 30, 1879, before final hearing, the complainant dismissed the bill and amended bill so far as by the prayer it was sought to hold the defendant Craig liable as trustee for the complainant of the title to the lands conveyed to him.

The opinion and decision of the register and receiver in favor of Craig's claim recites the grounds of the award as follows:

"His claim does not rest wholly upon the shadowy foundation of uncertain and vague promises, but is backed by conveyances which remove all suspicion or doubt from his asserted rights, and in our opinion cannot be postponed to any other claim than those above recited. If his claim rested on promises to settle only, it might be said that the promises dated as far back as 1855, and the month of March of that year; that he went on the land promised; that he offered his resignation in the army in consequence of it; that it was not accepted; that in December, 1862, he was appointed agent for the grant by St. Vrain, and then again resigned, and was refused acceptance; that in the spring of 1863, he began the improvement of his land, finally got out of the army in 1864, and moved on the land, where he has since resided continuously, and has expended $200,000 in improvements thereon,

Page 123 U. S. 200

the patent deeds of St. Vrain showing the extent of his rights -- deeds which appear to have been duly recorded soon after execution -- thus preventing anyone being deceived as to the property claimed by him."

The decision of the register and receiver against the claim of Leitensdorfer is based upon these grounds, viz., that there is no sufficient proof of the paper title by which he claims an undivided one-sixth of the original Mexican grant; that that paper title, even if proven, would not entitle him to anything as against actual settlers, but only to one-sixth of any surplus which might be ascertained after satisfying the claims of that class, and that Leitensdorfer was not entitled to claim as an actual settler, even supposing that he had taken possession of a particular location, for the reason that he does not show himself to have acquired that possessory interest from either of the original grantees.

The cause having proceeded to final hearing, a decree was entered July 2, 1880, whereby it was

"Ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the decision or award of the register and receiver of the land described in the bill and pleadings of date the 23rd of February, 1874, in favor of the defendant William Craig, is fraudulent and void, and it is further ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the patent for the said lands issued to defendant William Craig on the 8th day of January, 1878, be, and it is hereby, declared and decreed to be null and void, and that the approved plat or plats delivered to defendant William Craig, as evidence of title to the land described in the bill by William Campbell, Surveyor General, be, and the same are hereby, declared and decreed to be null and void."

From that decree this appeal is prosecuted. Pending the appeal in this Court, both parties having died, the cause has been revived in the names of their respective personal representatives.

Page 123 U. S. 202

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