Jones v. United States
137 U.S. 202 (1890)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Jones v. United States, 137 U.S. 202 (1890)

Jones v. United States

No. 1143

Argued October 29, 1899

Decided November 24, 1890

137 U.S. 202




The Guano Islands Act of August 18, 1856, c. 164, reenacted in Rev.Stat. §§ 5570-5578, is constitutional and valid.

Section 6 of the Act of August 18, 185G, c. 164, reenacted in Rev.Stat. § 5576, does not assume to extend the admiralty jurisdiction over land, but merely extends the provisions of the statutes of the United States for the punishment of offenses upon the high seas to like offenses upon guano islands which the President has determined should be considered as appertaining to the United States.

Under Rev.Stat. §§ 730, 5339, 5576, murder committed on a guano island which has been determined by the President to appertain to the United States, may be tried in the courts of the United States for the district into which the offender is first brought.

By the law of nations, when citizens or subjects of one nation, in its name and by its authority or with its assent, take and hold actual, continuous and useful possession (although only for the purpose of carrying on a particular business, such as catching and curing fish, or working mines) of territory unoccupied by any other government or its citizens, the nation to which they belong may exercise such jurisdiction and for such period as it sees fit over territory so acquired.

Who is the sovereign, de jure or de facto, of a territory is not a judicial, but a political question, the determination of which by the legislative and executive departments of any government conclusively binds the judges, as well as all other officers, citizens, and subjects of that government.

Courts of justice are bound to take judicial notice of the territorial extent of the jurisdiction exercised by the government whose laws they administer, or of its recognition or denial of the sovereignty of a foreign power, as appearing from the public acts of the legislature and executive, although those acts are not formally put in evidence, nor in accord with the pleadings.

In the ascertainment of facts of which judges are bound to take judicial

Page 137 U. S. 203

notice, as in the decision of matters of law which it is their office to know, they may refresh their memory and inform their conscience from such sources as they deem most trustworthy, and as to international affairs may inquire of the Department of State.

The determination of the President, under the Act of August 18, 1856, c.164, § 1 (Rev.Stat. § 6570), that a guano island shall be considered as appertaining to the United States may be declared through the Department of State, whose acts in this regard are in legal contemplation the acts of the President.

The Island of Navassa in the Caribbean Sea must, by reason of the action of the President, as appearing in documents of the Department of State, be considered as appertaining to the United States.

Under the Act of August 18, 1856, c. 164, § 2 (Rev.Stat. § 6574), a breach of condition of the bond given by the discoverer of a guano island forfeits his private rights only, and does not affect the dominion of the United States over the island, or the jurisdiction of their courts.

This cause was argued with No. 1142, Smith v. United States, and No. 1144, Key v. United States, post,137 U. S. 224. On the application of the counsel for the several plaintiffs in error, it was ordered that three counsel for plaintiffs in error be allowed to make oral argument herein. The case is stated in the opinion.

MR. JUSTICE GRAY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This was an indictment, found in the District Court of the United States for the District of Maryland and remitted to the circuit court under Rev.Stat. § 1039, alleging that Henry Jones, late of that district, on September 14, 1889,

"at Navassa Island, a place which then and there was under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States and out of the jurisdiction of any particular state or district of the United States, the same being at the time of the committing of the

Page 137 U. S. 204

offenses in the manner and form as hereinafter stated by the persons hereinafter named an island situated in the Caribbean Sea, and named 'Navassa Island,' and which was then and there recognized and considered by the United States as containing a deposit of guano, within the meaning and terms of the laws of the United States relating to such islands, and which was then and there recognized and considered by the United States as appertaining to the United States, and which was also then and there in the possession of the United States, under the laws of the United States then and there in force relating to such islands,"

murdered one Thomas N. Foster, by giving him three mortal blows with an axe, of which he there died on the same day, and that other persons named aided and abetter in the murder. The indictment, after charging the murder in usual form, alleged that the District of Maryland was the district of the United States into which the defendant was afterwards first brought from the Island of Navassa.

The defendant filed a general demurrer, which was overruled, and he then pleaded not guilty. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, and a bill of exceptions was tendered by the defendant, and allowed by the court, in substance, as follows:

At the trial, the United States, to prove that Navassa Island was recognized and considered by the United States as appertaining to the United States, and in the possession of the United States under the provisions of the laws of the United States in force with regard to such islands, offered in evidence certified copies of papers, from the records of the State Department of the United States, as follows:

A copy of a memorial addressed to the Secretary of State by Peter Duncan, signed and sworn to by him on November 18, 1857, before a commissioner of the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Maryland, and certified by the present Secretary of State to be

"a true copy from Senate executive document No. 37, 36th Congress, 1st session, filed in this department with papers relating to the discovery of guano on the Island of Navassa,"

which was in these words:

Page 137 U. S. 205

"To the honorable the Secretary of State of the United States:"

"Peter Duncan, a citizen of the United States, respectfully represents to the department of State of the United States that on the first day of July in the year 1857, he did discover a deposit of guano on an island or key in the Caribbean Sea not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, which said island or key is called 'Navassa,' and lies in latitude 18

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