New Orleans v. De Armas
34 U.S. 224 (1835)

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U.S. Supreme Court

New Orleans v. De Armas, 34 U.S. 9 Pet. 224 224 (1835)

New Orleans v. De Armas

34 U.S. (9 Pet.) 224

Syllabus

Louisiana. A lot of ground situated in the City of New Orleans which was occupied under an incomplete title for some time by permission of the Spanish government, granted before the acquisition of Louisiana by the United States, was confirmed to the claimants under the laws of the United States, and a patent was issued for the same on 17 February, 1821. The City of New Orleans, claiming this lot as being part of a quay dedicated to the use of the city in the original plan of the town, and therefore not grantable by the King of Spain, enlarged the levee in front of New Orleans so as to include it. The patentees from the United States brought a suit in the district court of the State of Louisiana for the lot, which pronounced judgment in their favor, and that judgment was affirmed by the supreme court of the state. The judgment

was removed to this Court under the twenty-fifth section of the Judicial Act. A motion was made to dismiss the writ of error for want of jurisdiction.

By the court:

"The merits of this controversy cannot be revised in this tribunal. The only inquiry here is whether the record shows that the Constitution, or a treaty, or a law of the United States has been violated by the decision of that court."

The twenty-fifth section of the Judicial Act is limited by the Constitution, and must be construed so as to be confined within these limits. But to construe, this section so that a case can arise under the Constitution or a treaty only when a right is created by the Constitution or treaty would defeat the obvious purpose of the Constitution as well as the act of Congress. The language of both instruments extends the jurisdiction of this Court to rights protected by the Constitution, treaties, or laws of the United States, from whatever source these rights may spring.

To sustain the jurisdiction of this Court in this case, it must be shown that the title set up by the City of New Orleans is protected by the treaty ceding Louisiana to the United States or by some act of Congress applicable to that title.

The third article of the Treaty of Louisiana stipulates for the admission of Louisiana into the Union, and it obviously contemplates two object -- one that stated, and the other that, till that admission, the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be protected in the enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion. Had any of these rights been violated while the stipulation continued in force, the individual supposing himself to be injured, might have brought his case into this Court under the twenty-fifth section of the Judicial Act.

But this stipulation ceased to operate when Louisiana became a member of the Union and its inhabitants were "admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States." The right to bring questions of title decided in a state court before this tribunal

Page 34 U. S. 225

is not classed among those immunities. The inhabitants of Louisiana enjoy all the advantages of American citizens in common with their brethren in their sister states when their titles are decided by the tribunals of the state.

The act of Congress admitting Louisiana into the Union carries into execution the third article of the treaty of cession, and cannot be construed to give appellate jurisdiction to the Court over all questions of title between the citizens of Louisiana.

The patent granted to the claimants of the land did not profess to destroy any previous existing title, nor could it so operate. The patent was issued under the act of May, 1820, entitled "an act supplementary to the several acts for the adjustment of land titles in the State of Louisiana." That act confirms the titles to which it applies "against any claim on the part of the United States." The title of the City of New Orleans could not be affected by this confirmation.

It is a principle applicable to every grant, and it cannot affect preexisting titles. The case of United States v. Arredondo, 6 Pet. 733, cited.

The defendants in error commenced a petitory action by filing a petition in the First District court in and for the First Judicial District of the State of Louisiana, claiming to be the owners of a lot of ground in the City of New Orleans, eighty feet front and close to the foot of the Old levee, between St. Philip's and Maria Streets, and stating that the lot had formerly been built upon, and had been possessed by a certain Thomas Beltran, or Bertrand, with the knowledge, permission, and authorization of the Spanish government from March, 1788 to 1803, and by his widow, who afterwards demolished the buildings, and removed to another part of the city. The widow, acting for herself and the minors, took all the legal steps to have the title confirmed by the United States, and the commissioners of the land office reported on the title that "it would be more an act of justice than of generosity if the government should confirm it." The commissioners under the Act of Congress of 11 May, 1820, entitled "an act supplementary to the several acts for the adjustment of land claims in the State of Louisiana," confirmed the title against any claim of the United States, and a patent for the same was granted to the widow and heirs of Bertrand. After the death of the widow, the petitioners became the owners of the property by purchase from her heirs -- they being also the heirs of Bertrand.

Page 34 U. S. 226

The petition proceeds to state that prior to the cession of Louisiana by France, the lot of ground belonged to the King of France, and by the laws of Spain, which were introduced into the colony of Louisiana after the said cession, the King of Spain by his officers had the full right of disposing of the same. By the retrocession of the colony to France by Spain, the right to the lot of ground became vested in France, if it was not the property of Bertrand, and the same right was not divested by any act done by the King of Spain except in favor of Bertrand. That by the treaty of cession of Louisiana to the United States by France, the United States clearly acquired every lot of ground, land, squares (emplacemens terrains), buildings, fortifications, edifices therein, which were not private property, and that the grant made by the aforementioned letters patent therefore justly and lawfully vested the said widow of Bertrand with all the rights of ownership and possession, which all the different governments who had possessed Louisiana had or could have to the said lot of ground.

The petition alleges that the Corporation of New Orleans, under the pretense that the lot claimed by the petitioners is a part of certain quays marked on a plan of the city, have enlarged the levee in front of the city so as to include the same and pretend that they have just title to this lot, and prays process, &c., and that it may be adjudged and decreed that the petitioners are the only true and lawful owners and proprietors of the above described property, and that the said mayor, aldermen, and inhabitants have no right whatever in, to, or upon the same.

The answer of the Corporation of New Orleans denies that there had been an absolute grant of the lot in question by the Spanish government to Bertrand, but only a permission to build a temporary cabin thereon, and asserts that the patent of the United States cannot be a good title thereto. They insist that it had been determined in 1812 or 1813 in a suit brought by the corporation against the widow and heirs of Bertrand that the latter had no title to the lot, and was compelled to take down the buildings thereon. The answer proceeds as follows.

"And the said defendants further say that even supposing, which they do deny, that the Spanish government would have at any time made an absolute grant of the said parcel of land

Page 34 U. S. 227

to the said Beltran or Bertrand, the said grant should be null and void because the said parcel of land made a part of the quays of this city -- that is, one of those public things which even the sovereign himself had no authority to dispose of to the prejudice of the public without a flagrant abuse of his powers."

"And these defendants further say that at the time of the foundation of the City of New Orleans under the French government, said government left between the bank of the River Mississippi and the first row of houses fronting said river a large space emptied and unoccupied, under the name of quays, and intended to serve and to be reserved as such for the use of the inhabitants of this city, as they exist in the several cities of France and in her colonies, and as it is proved by the ancient plans of the City of New Orleans which have been preserved in the office of the marine charts, maps and plans, which existed at Versailles, in France."

After proceeding to take the evidence of witnesses, and on the exhibition of their testimony with the documentary evidence of the parties, the district court, on 12 March, 1832, gave a judgment in favor of the petitioners in the following terms.

"The plaintiffs allege that the widow Gonzales, from whom they derive title, obtained a grant from the United States of the lot in question, and that the defendants have extended the levee so as to embrace said lot, and conclude with the prayer that they may be decreed to be the lawful owners, and the defendants enjoined from disturbing them in the free enjoyment of their rights as owners of said lot. The defendants oppose this claim upon several grounds, but the only one which can be relied upon with any hope of success is that the space between the front buildings of the city and the river was, at the time the city was laid off under the government of France, intended to be kept open for public use, designated as a quay, and which could not be the subject of a grant. If the facts as stated in the answer were true, the conclusion drawn from them would be undeniable. The sovereign could not cede what had been already granted, unless there be retrocession or forfeiture. The only evidence in support of the defendant's claim is a facsimile of a plan made by Charlevoix, and by him

Page 34 U. S. 228

stated to be copied from a plan deposited in the marine office, made by N. B. Ing. de la M. 1744, and on which is marked on the space between the front of the city and the river, the word 'quay.' Names do not change the nature of things; a quay is an artificial work, and may belong to an individual as well as a corporation, but to belong to either it must not only exist and have a defined extent, but must be shown to have been granted. It is self-evident to everyone who has seen this space of ground that it is not a quay. The defendants have shown no other title which can be validly opposed to the grant under which the plaintiffs claim; there is no material difference between this and the case of Metzinger and the defendants. That was a grant under the King of Spain; this a grant under the United States, who have succeeded to the same rights. Had the defendants sheltered themselves under their charter and shown that the public safety required that the base of the levee should be extended to prevent inundation, or that it was necessary for a public way, the case might have presented a different aspect."

"It is ordered and decreed that the defendants be enjoined not to disturb the plaintiffs in the possession and free exercise of their rights in and to the lot mentioned and described in their petition, and that the defendants pay costs."

From this decision the Corporation of New Orleans appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana. In February, 1833, the supreme court affirmed the judgment of the inferior court, and the case was finally disposed of, by a judgment in favor of the original petitioners, a rehearing having been refused, on 27 March in the same year.

The mayor, aldermen and inhabitants prosecuted this writ of error, and the following errors in the judgment of the Supreme Court of Louisiana were assigned by the plaintiffs in error, and came up with the record.

"The judgment of the Supreme Court of the Eastern District of the State of Louisiana affirming the judgment of the court of the First District of said state is erroneous, and ought to be reversed, and judgment ought to be rendered in favor of the plaintiffs in error, with costs, for the following reasons, and such others as may appear on the record. "

Page 34 U. S. 229

"1. The spot of ground in controversy makes part of an open space in front of the City of New Orleans called a quay, which by the ancient plans of the city was constituted a quay, or public place, and dedicated to public use as well by its designation on said plans, as by the sovereign authority, and by its use and occupation for public purposes."

"2. The right of the former sovereigns of Louisiana over this place was a matter of prerogative, varying according to the institutions of the different governments which have held Louisiana, but always inseparable from the sovereignty."

"3. The right of use of this place by the public is a vested right; is a species of property in which the inhabitants of Louisiana are protected under the third article of the treaty of cession."

"4. By the treaty of cession, Louisiana was ceded in full sovereignty to the United States."

"5. The United States held this sovereign power during the time they held the sovereignty of Louisiana, but by the admission of Louisiana into the union, this branch of sovereignty was vested in the State of Louisiana, and under the Constitution could not exist in the United States."

"6. The power of regulating the use or appropriating or changing the destination of public places belongs to the sovereign power alone."

"7. Since the admission of Louisiana into the union on a footing with the original states, the United States had no power to interfere with the property or use of any public place in Louisiana."

"8. The plaintiffs in error, who are, under the laws of Louisiana, the proper parties to vindicate the public rights, held the place in controversy by permission of and by the authority of the State of Louisiana, as will appear by the charter of the City of New Orleans and the laws of the state, and claimed the undisturbed use thereof by virtue of the treaty of cession, and under the act of Congress passed on 8 April, 1812, for the admission of Louisiana into the union, and the decision of the Supreme Court of the Eastern District of Louisiana is against the title, rights, and privileges thus claimed by the plaintiffs in error, and in this is contrary to the provisions of the treaty and law of the United States, and ought therefore to be reversed. "

Page 34 U. S. 233

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