Beard v. Federy
70 U.S. 478

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Beard v. Federy, 70 U.S. 3 Wall. 478 478 (1865)

Beard v. Federy

70 U.S. (3 Wall.) 478

Syllabus

1. The Act of August 31, 1852, relating to appeals from the Board of Land Commissioners to ascertain and settle private land claims in California, created under the Act of March 3d, 1851, provides that the filing of a transcript of the decision and proceedings of the board with the clerk of the district court shall operate ipso facto as an appeal on behalf of the party against whom the decision was rendered, and that the attorney-general shall, within six months after receiving a certified transcript of such decree and proceedings, when the decision is against the United States, cause notice to be filed with the clerk that the appeal will be prosecuted, and on failure to give such notice that "the appeal shall be regarded as dismissed." Under this act,

Held that when the attorney-general gave notice that he would not prosecute the appeal, such appeal was for all legal purposes in fact dismissed, and the decree of the board took effect precisely as if no appeal had ever been taken; and an order or decree of the district court giving leave to the claimant to proceed upon the decree of the board as upon a final decree was a proper disposition of the case.

2. To give jurisdiction to the Board of Land Commissioners to investigate and determine a claim to land alleged to have been derived from the

Page 70 U. S. 479

Spanish or Mexican governments, it is not necessary that the petition of the claimant should aver that such claim was supported by any grant or concession in writing; it is sufficient if the petition allege that the claim asserted was by virtue of a right or title derived from either of those governments. The right or title may rest in the general law of the land.

3. All Mexican grants in colonization, under the decree of 1824 and the regulations of 1828, were made subject to the approval of the Departmental Assembly. Until such approval they were not definitively valid. If not thus approved before the change of jurisdiction, it devolved upon the United States, succeeding under the stipulations of the treaty of cession to the obligations of the former government, to complete what thus remained imperfect. By the Act of March 3, 1851, the United States have declared the conditions under which they will discharge their political obligations to Mexican grantees.

4. The legislation of Congress requiring all claims to lands in California, by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican governments, to be presented to the Board of Commissioners created under that act for investigation and settlement, and providing that all claims which are not thus presented within a specified period shall be considered and treated as abandoned, is not subject to any constitutional objection, so far as it applies to grants of an imperfect character which require further action of the political department of government to render them perfect.

5. A patent of the United States issued upon a confirmation of a claim to land by virtue of a right or title derived from Spain or Mexico is to be regarded in two aspects -- as a deed of the United States, and as a record of the action of the government upon the title of the claimant as it existed upon the acquisition of California. As a deed its operation is that of a quitclaim, or rather of a conveyance of such interest as the United States possessed in the land, and it takes effect by relation at the time when proceedings were instituted by the filing of the petition before the Board of Land Commissioners. As a record of the government, it is evidence that the claim asserted was valid under the laws of Mexico, that it was entitled to recognition and protection by the stipulations of the treaty; and might have been located under the former government, and is correctly located now so as to embrace the premises as they are surveyed and described. As against the government and parties claiming under the government, this record, so long as it remains unvacated, is conclusive.

6. The term "third persons," mentioned in the fifteenth section of the Act of March 3, 1851, against whom the decree and patent of the United States are not conclusive, does not embrace all persons other than the United States and the claimants, but only those who hold superior titles, such as will enable them to resist successfully any action of the government in disposing of the property.

7. In the federal courts for the California circuit (which have herein

Page 70 U. S. 480

adopted the practice prevailing in the state courts under the state act regulating proceedings in civil cases), not only may distinct parcels of land, if covered by one title, be included in one complaint or declaration, but, with a demand for these, may be united a claim for their rents and profits, or for damages for withholding them.

8. Under this act, the provision as to the description by metes and bounds of the lands sued for, is directory, only.

9. When the pleadings in an action of ejectment do not state the value of the property in controversy, the value may be shown at the trial.

After our conquest of California, in 1846, Congress, by Act of 3 March, 1851, "to ascertain and settle the private land claims" in that state [Footnote 1] constituted a board of commissioners, in the nature of a judicial body, before which, claims to land there were to be investigated. Every person claiming lands there "by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican governments" was to present his claim to this board with the documentary and other evidences of it: notice of depositions, when taken, were to be given to the law officers of the United States. In case of confirmation of the claim, an appeal was given the United States to the district court, in which case, says the act (§ 10), that court shall proceed to render judgment upon the pleadings and evidence in the case, and upon such further evidence as may be taken by order of the said court. If the decree in that court was adverse to the government, an appeal was given to this Court. The act declares that "for all claims finally confirmed by the said commissioners or by the district court, or the Supreme Court, a PATENT shall issue to the claimant" -- but that such patent shall be "conclusive between the United States and the said claimants only, and shall not affect the interests of third persons." It declares moreover

"that all lands, the claims to which shall not have been presented to the said commissioners within two years after the date of the act, shall be deemed, held, and considered as part of the public domain of the United States."

One section of the act -- the 16th -- enacts that it shall be "the duty of the commissioners to ascertain and report to the

Page 70 U. S. 481

Secretary of the Interior the tenure by which the Mission Lands [Footnote 2] are held."

A subsequent statute, [Footnote 3] that of August 31, 1852, and amendatory of the former act, provides that when a final decision is rendered by the commissioners,

"It shall be their duty to have two certified transcripts prepared of their proceedings and decision, and of the papers and evidence on which the same are founded, one of which transcripts shall be filed with the clerk of the proper district court, and the other shall be transmitted to the Attorney General of the United States, and the filing of such transcript with the clerk aforesaid shall ipso facto operate as an appeal for the party against whom the decision shall be rendered; and if such decision shall be against such private claimant, it shall be his duty to file a notice with the clerk aforesaid, within six months thereafter, of his intention to prosecute the appeal; and if the decision shall be against the United States, it shall be the duty of the attorney-general, within six months after receiving said transcript, to cause a notice to be filed with the clerk aforesaid, that the appeal will be prosecuted by the United States; and on a failure of either party to file such notice with the clerk aforesaid, the appeal shall be regarded as dismissed."

Under the first act, Alemany, Bishop of Monterey, presented his petition to the commissioners for confirmation of a claim which he made to certain lands described by him, including church lands at the Mission of San Jose, consisting of the church, churchyard, burial ground, orchard, and vineyard, with the necessary appurtenances; the whole embracing a little over nineteen acres of land. His petition averred, in substance, that by the laws of Spain, from time immemorial, and by the laws of the republic of Mexico at the time of the cession of California to the United States, the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church had the force of law in all things relating to the acquisition, transmission, use, and disposal of property, real or personal, belonging

Page 70 U. S. 482

to the Catholic Church, or devoted to religious purposes, or to the service of God; and that by the same laws it was not necessary that any grant of land for ecclesiastical or church purposes should be proved by any deed or writing, public or private; but the right of the church to the property devoted to religious purposes &c., was always recognized as regulated by the canon law. That the premises of which he sought confirmation had been for a long term of time devoted to religious purposes and uses, the public worship of God, the administration of the sacraments, and sacrifice of the church; according to the rites, ritual, and ceremonial, of the said Catholic Church. That by the canon law, and the laws of Spain and Mexico, the title, control, and administration of this and all other church property of the same description, absolutely essential to the religious uses and purposes above mentioned, was vested in the bishop and clergy of the diocese, who, for such purposes, were regarded as a body corporate; that the Catholic Church, at the date of the conquest and cession of California to the United States, had been in the actual and undisturbed possession of the premises in question since the year 1797, and that for the purpose of enabling him to hold the property, and rightly administering it for the use of the church, he, the petitioner, had been made a corporation sole by the state of California, under the title of "Bishop of Monterey."

The board confirmed the claim of the bishop. The United States appealed to the district court. Subsequently, however, the attorney-general gave notice that

"an appeal would not be prosecuted in the case, and the district court, on the 16th March, 1857, at a stated term, ordered, adjudged, and decreed that the claimant have leave to proceed under the decree of the United States Land Commission, heretofore rendered, in his favor, as a final decree."

Thereupon a patent issued to the bishop, from the United States. It recited the bishop's petition, the decree of confirmation by the board in his favor, the appeal by the United States, and the notice that it would not be prosecuted, and in usual form gave and granted the lands to the bishop and his successors,

Page 70 U. S. 483

in trust &c., having about it every circumstance of formality.

Of the same lands, thus the subject of confirmation and patent to the Bishop of Monterey, one of the governors of California, Pio Pico, on the 20th of June, 1846 -- Mexico being then invaded by the United States, but the authority and jurisdiction of the Mexican officers not having yet terminated [Footnote 4] -- made a grant to a certain Castenada and others. The grant recited on its face that the governor had been authorized previously, by the Departmental Assembly,

"to alienate the Missions, with the end of preventing their total ruin, and providing the government with the resources which it then immediately for its exigencies required. [Footnote 5]"

Neither the said grant, however, nor any claim founded thereon had ever been submitted for confirmation to the Board of Land Commissioners, and neither the grant nor any copy or counterpart or record of it, or any paper relating to it, existed or was to be found among the archives of the Mexican government, though the parties who held under it asserted and declared themselves able to prove that it was executed on the day it bore date, and that the consideration money named in it, $3,000, had been on that day paid.

Upon this state of titles as they appeared from deeds produced or offered, one Federy, claiming title through the patent to the Bishop of Monterey, brought ejectment, in the Circuit Court for the Northern District of California, against Beard, who relied on the title derived under the deed of Governor Pico.

In the state courts of California -- their practice in common law cases being adopted essentially in the federal tribunals there -- a statute allows a plaintiff to unite in the same complaint claims

"to recover specific real property, with or without damages for the withholding thereof, or for

Page 70 U. S. 484

waste committed thereon, and the rents and profits of the same,"

though the same statute provides that such property "shall be described with its metes and bounds." In this case the declaration (or complaint, as it is called in California) demanded three parcels of land, describing one by metes and bounds; one as "having two springs of water thereon, and lying outside of the adobe wall which enclosed a garden and orchard" previously described, and the third as having "a mill dam and a pond or reservoir of water thereon, lying to the north or northeast, or thereabouts, of the said adobe wall."

The plaintiff, in the same action, demanded judgment for possession of the premises, for mesne profits, stated to be $5,000 a year, and for costs and damages, the last alleged at $1,000. On the trial, the claim for mesne profits was stricken out, but it was then mutually admitted that the value of the first item of the three parcels claimed, and the only one recovered, was $2,500.

After judgment for the plaintiff for one of the parcels, the case came here on error taken by the defendants.

Page 70 U. S. 486

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