City of Mobile v. Emanuel
42 U.S. 95

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U.S. Supreme Court

City of Mobile v. Emanuel, 42 U.S. 1 How. 95 95 (1843)

City of Mobile v. Emanuel

42 U.S. (1 How.) 95

Syllabus

The case of City of Mobile v. Hallett, 16 Pet. 261, examined and confirmed.

Under the exception contained in the Act of Congress of 1824, no title passed to the City of Mobile where the land was in the possession of a party claiming to hold it under a Spanish grant which had been confirmed by the United States.

The facts in the case were these:

On 26 September, 1807, the Spanish governor of Florida granted to John Forbes a tract of land immediately adjacent to what is now the City of Mobile and indeed constituting a part of it. The grant was founded upon and confirmatory of an older one issued to Richardson in 1767, by the British government, then in possession of the country. The land was upon the west side of the River Mobile. In the document issued

Page 42 U. S. 96

by the surveyor general, it is said to be "bounded on the east by said river," and in that issued by the intendant, to be "terminated by the bank of said river on the east side;" in both, there is a reservation of a "free passage on the bank of the river."

On 2 March, 1819, Congress passed

"An act to enable the people of the Alabama territory to form a Constitution and state government, and for the admission of such state into the Union, on an equal footing with the original states,"

by the sixth section of which it was enacted

"That the following propositions be and the same are hereby offered to the convention of the said Territory of Alabama, when formed, for their free acceptance or rejection, which, if accepted by the convention, shall be obligatory upon the United States."

After enumerating many articles, the section concludes with this:

"and that all navigable waters within the said state shall forever remain public highways, free to the citizens of said state and of the United States, without any tax, duty, impost, or toll, therefor, imposed by the said state."

By the original plan of the town a street was laid off, called Water Street, on the margin of the river, running nearly north and south, which was afterwards filled up, and by the improvement the water, at high tide, was confined to the eastern edge of the street.

On 26 May, 1824, Congress passed "An act granting certain lots of ground to the corporation of the City of Mobile, and to certain individuals of said city," which is as follows:

"1. That all the right and claim of the United States to the lots known as the hospital and bakehouse lots, containing about three-fourths of an acre of land, in the City of Mobile, in the State of Alabama, and also all the right and claim of the United States to all the lots not sold or confirmed to individuals, either by this or any former act, and to which no equitable title exists in favor of any individual, under this or any former act, between high watermark, and the channel of the river, and between Church Street and North Boundary Street, in front of the said city, be and the same are hereby vested in the Mayor and Aldermen of the said City of Mobile, for the time being, and their successors in office, for the sole use and benefit of the said city forever."

"2. That all the right and claim of the United States to so

Page 42 U. S. 97

many of the lots of ground east of Water Street, and between Church Street and North Boundary Street, now known as water lots, as are situated between the channel of the river and the front of the lots known under the Spanish government as water lots, in the said City of Mobile, whereon improvements have been made, be and the same are hereby vested in the several proprietors and occupants of each of the lots heretofore fronting on the River Mobile, except in cases where such proprietor or occupant has alienated his right to any such lot now designated as a water lot, or the Spanish government has made a new grant or order of survey for the same during the time at which they had the power to grant the same, in which case the rights and claims of the United States shall be and is hereby vested in the person to whom such alienation, grant, or order of survey was made, or in his legal representative."

"Provided, that nothing in this act contained shall be construed to affect the claim or claims, if any such there be, of any individual or individuals, or of any body politic or corporate."

7 vol. Laws of the United States, 318; 1 vol. Land Laws, ed. 1838, 398.

On 8 July, 1835, the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Mobile brought an action of trespass to try title against Emanuel and Gaines in the state circuit court of Alabama, claiming several lots bounded on the west by Water Street, and running eastward to the channel of the river.

On the trial of the cause, the jury, under the instructions of the court, found the defendants "not guilty" of the trespass. The court charged the jury

"That if the place in controversy was, subsequent to the admission of this state into the Union, below both high and low water mark, then Congress had no right to grant it, and if defendants were in possession, the plaintiffs could not oust them, by virtue of the act of Congress."

"That the grant to Forbes extended to high water mark, and that if the place claimed was between high water mark and the channel, in front of the grant, and had been reclaimed by the defendants; then the plaintiffs could not recover in virtue of the act of Congress, and this, notwithstanding the reservation of the right of way specified in the confirmation of the grant to Forbes. "

Page 42 U. S. 98

Upon this charge a bill of exceptions was founded, and the case carried to the Supreme Court of the State of Alabama, where the judgment of the court below was affirmed.

It is necessary to refer to the opinion of the Supreme Court of the State of Alabama in order to understand the ground upon which the dissentient opinion of MR. JUSTICE CATRON is placed.

The Supreme Court of Alabama did not decide the first point raised in the bill of exceptions, viz., "that Congress had no right to grant the land to the City of Mobile." But being of opinion that the grant to Forbes conveyed to him the intervening space between high water mark and the channel of the river (covering the property in dispute), and thus precluded the plaintiffs from ever recovering it; and being moreover of opinion, that a judgment ought not to be reversed for a misdirection of the judge to the jury, if it appears that the party complaining could not have been injured, that court waived all examination into the correctness of the first point, and contented itself with affirming the judgment of the court below.

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