Dibble v. Bellingham Bay Land Co.,
163 U.S. 63 (1896)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Dibble v. Bellingham Bay Land Co., 163 U.S. 63 (1896)

Dibble v. Bellingham Bay Land Company

No. 230

Argued April 17, 1896

Decided May 4, 1896

163 U.S. 63


In a suit in a state court to quiet title, two claims to title were set up by the plaintiff. The first was that his title had been acquired by adverse possession, sufficient under the local law. On this point, the trial court found that, in 1862, the plaintiff's grantor entered into possession of the land in question, and that he and the plaintiff had since been continuously and then were in actual, notorious and adverse possession thereof under color and claim of title. The second claim was under a deed from husband and wife, executed by the former under an alleged power of attorney from the latter which had been lost without having been

Page 163 U. S. 64

recorded. On this point the trial court found that the existence and validity of the power of attorney was established. It entered a decree that the plaintiff was entitled to the possession of the land, that the defendant was not the owner.of it, that the cloud be removed, and that the power of attorney be established. On appeal to the supreme court of the state, this decree was affirmed. The case being brought here by writ of error, the chief justice of the supreme court of the state certified that the question had been duly raised in the trial court whether the said power and the deed made under it, which by the law at the time of its making were absolutely void, were made valid by the Territorial Act of February 2, 1888, and whether, if so made valid, it was not in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Held: that as it was settled in the state that actual, uninterrupted, and notorious possession under claim of right was sufficient without color of title, and that a void deed accompanied with actual occupancy was sufficient to set the statute of limitations in motion, the judgment could be sustained on the first point, which raised no federal question, and that consequently this Court was without jurisdiction.

If the record discloses that a question has been raised and decided adversely to a party claiming the benefit of a provision of the Constitution of the United States, and another question not federal has also been raised and decided against such party, and the decision of the latter question is sufficient notwithstanding the federal question to sustain the decision, this Court will not review the judgment.

If it appears that the court did in fact base its judgment on such independent ground, or where it does not appear on which of the two grounds the judgment was based, if the independent ground on which it might have been based was a good and valid one, sufficient in itself to sustain the judgment, this Court will not assume jurisdiction.

This result cannot be in any respect controlled by the certificate of the presiding judge, for the office of the certificate, as it respects the federal question, is to make more certain and specific what is too general and indefinite in the record, but it is incompetent to originate the question.

If the conflict of a state law with the Constitution and the decision by the state court in favor of its validity are relied on, this must appear on the face of the record before the decision can be reexamined in this Court, and this is equally true where the denial of a title, right, privilege, or immunity under the Constitution and laws of the United States, or the validity of an authority exercised under the United States, is urged as the ground of jurisdiction.

No rule is more firmly established than that this Court will follow the construction given by the supreme court of a state to a statute of limitations of a state, and there is no reason for disregarding it in this instance.

This was a complaint filed by the Bellingham Bay Land Company against Carmi Dibble in the Superior Court of

Page 163 U. S. 65

Whatcom County, Washington, on June 7, 1891, seeking a decree quieting plaintiff's title to certain lands therein described and establishing the existence and validity of a certain power of attorney alleged to have been lost without having been recorded. Defendant disclaimed as to the west half of the property in question, and, after demurrer overruled to an amended complaint, answered by way of denial, and assertion of defendant's claim set out in the complaint, and also by way of cross complaint. A trial was had on issues joined, and the superior court filed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The court found that plaintiff was a corporation duly organized and existing under the laws of the State of Washington, with full powers to purchase, own, and sell real estate; that on or prior to March 28, 1862, Thomas Jones and Betsy Jones, his wife, were the owners of a certain donation land claim situated in the County of Whatcom, and Territory of Washington, as particularly described; that these lands were donated to Thomas Jones and his wife under the donation laws of the United States, and that, by virtue of the division which was made of them by the surveyor general and by the certificate and patent, the west half of the lands was donated to Thomas Jones and the east half to Betsy Jones, his wife. The court further found that on March 28, 1862, for a valuable consideration paid therefor, Thomas Jones, for himself and as attorney in fact for his wife, executed good and sufficient deeds of conveyance for all the tract of land to Edward Eldridge, and that since that date, Eldridge had duly conveyed the premises to plaintiff, a small parcel excepted; that prior to the execution of the deed by Jones for himself and his wife, Betsy Jones had duly executed and delivered her power of attorney to Thomas, authorizing him to sell and convey the lands; that the power of attorney was executed under the seal of said Betsy, and was duly acknowledged and witnessed and properly certified, but that the same was not placed on the records of the county, but became, and still remained, lost, and at the date of the execution of the deed, had not been revoked. The court then described the parcel conveyed by Eldridge to other parties than plaintiff.

Page 163 U. S. 66

The court further found that

"on the said 28th day of March, 1862, the said Eldridge entered into possession of all of the said donation claim of Thomas Jones and Betsy Jones, and that from that date to the present time, the said Edward Eldridge and his grantees, including the plaintiff in this case, have been continuously and now are in the actual, open, notorious, and adverse possession of all of the said property, under claim and color of title, excepting only the small parcels hereinbefore referred to as having been conveyed to other persons by the said Edward Eldridge; . . . that neither the defendant, nor his grantors, ancestors, or predecessors had been seised or possessed of the said premises, or any part or parcel thereof at any time since the said 28th day of March, 1862, and that the defendant is not now in possession of the said land;"

that defendant claimed to be the owner of the premises, and to have procured deeds for the land from persons claiming to be the heirs of Betsy Jones, and had caused these deeds to be recorded in Whatcom County, and had created a cloud upon plaintiff's title; that there was not sufficient evidence to establish the fact that Betsy Jones died intestate or that the persons under whom defendant claimed (Lovatt and others) were the heirs at law of Betsy Jones; that at the time when defendant claimed to have purchased the property from these alleged heirs, he had full notice and knowledge of the conveyance previously made by Thomas Jones for himself and his wife, and that he had notice of the existence of the power of attorney under which Jones conveyed as attorney in fact for his wife, and had notice that plaintiff was in possession of the premises, claiming to be owner under the Jones deed, and "that it and its immediate grantors had been in the possession of the said premises for more than ten years last past."

The superior court found as conclusion of law that plaintiff was entitled to the relief prayed (including, among other things, the establishment of "the existence and validity of the said power of attorney"), and entered a decree that plaintiff was the owner and in possession, and entitled to the possession, of the land in question, excepting the enumerated

Page 163 U. S. 67

parcel; that defendant was not the owner of the premises or any part or parcel thereof, and that the cloud created upon the title of the property by the deeds to defendant from Lovatt and others be removed, and plaintiff's title be quieted against all claims of defendant, and "that the said power of attorney from the said Betsy Jones to Thomas Jones, her husband, be, and the same is hereby, established," and for costs.

The cause was then taken on appeal to the supreme court of the state, and the decree below affirmed. 4 Wash. 764. Of the four judges of the supreme court who participated in the decision, all concurred in the judgment, and three, including the chief justice, in the opinion. Thereafter, the Chief Justice signed a certificate, and this writ of error was brought.

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