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Peralta v. United States

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United States Supreme Court

70 U.S. 434

Peralta  v.  United States

APPEAL from the decree of the District Court for Northern California on a claim presented in 1853, by Maria de Valencia, for herself and others, heirs of Teodora Peralta, for a piece of land in California on which they were living; the claim being founded on a grant alleged by them to have been made in the spring of 1846 to the said Teodora by Governor Pio Pico. The case had come of course to the District Court on an appeal from the Board of Land Commissioners established by the act of March 3, 1851, to settle private land claims in California.

The expediente which was produced by the claimant showed that in 1845, the Senora Peralta petitioned the alcalde of San Rafael to obtain a report from the neighbors or colindantes of the tract which she desired to solicit from the government, in order that the report might accompany her petition to the governor for a grant of the land. On the same day the magistrate certified that the colindantes had stated before him that the sobrante or surplus asked for was vacant and might be granted. On the 8th November, 1845, she presented a petition to the prefect, in which she set forth her previous application to the alcalde and the report of that officer, and requesting him to take such further proceedings as might be necessary. This petition was referred by the prefect to the sub-prefect, and by the latter to the first judge of San Rafael. On the 29th November the first judge reported the land to be vacant. On the 20th December the prefect recommended to the governor that the title issue. And on the 18th February, 1846, the governor attached to the expediente an order to that effect.

The expediente containing all these documents was produced by the claimant. The archives contained no record or trace whatever of any of these proceedings.

There seemed no reason, perhaps, to doubt the genuineness of any of the papers except the last and most important of all, viz., the order by the governor that the title issue. This order and the signature were evidently in Pico's handwriting, but the court below noted that his signature on this particular document bore little resemblance to his signatures elsewhere found in the archives, the uniform and striking peculiarities of which it had frequently commented upon; but, on the contrary, resembled the mode of signing his name, and especially of forming the letter 'P' in it, adopted by him at a much later period.

No explanation was offered of the circumstance that the expediente was found in the claimant's possession.

The Senora Peralta, mother of the petitioner, belonged, it was said, to a well-known and good family, and was a native of the region, with a perfectly fair character. One witness swore that she was occupying the land in 1844; another that she was on it even a year earlier.

The petition itself (or an amended petition rather, which differed in important respects from the original petition) set forth that title, a written document of concession signed by Pio Pico, did in fact issue, granting the land to the said Teodora Peralta; that, as the petitioner was informed and verily believed, the said document of concession, and also a map of the land, and a certificate of possession thereof, were delivered to the said Teodora Peralta, at the time of the said granting of said land, and within the knowledge and distinct recollection of the petitioner, were held and possessed by the said Teodora during her lifetime; that until within a short period the petitioner, and, as she was informed and verily believed, the rest of the heirs, had believed the same to be on file along with the said expediente in this cause; that the petitioner had made and caused to be made diligent search therefor without finding the same, and that she verily believed that the same had become lost or destroyed since the death of the said Teodora.

One of the daughters of Madame Peralta swore to her reception of the grant, and that for about a year previous to its delivery she had been in occupancy under a provisional license, although the case showed no record evidence of the same.

The Board of Land Commissioners, admitting that the proofs of occupancy and cultivation were satisfactory, and that, if the parties had used the proper diligence in procuring the issue of the grant and judicial measurement and formal possession, there might have been no difficulty in the case, still considered that in the absence of the issue of the grant, and a segregation of the land, they could do nothing but reject the claim.

The District Court was apparently of this same view: observing that the reports of the alcalde, the prefect, &c., showed that the Senora Peralta would have had no difficulty in obtaining the land, if she had followed out her original purpose; that the case was thus a hard one for the claimant, or rather her heirs, since she herself was now dead; but still declaring that if by accident or neglect she had failed to get what she might have laid a good foundation for obtaining, and but for accident or neglect might perhaps have got, in fact, the misfortune was one which that court could not remedy.

Messrs. Speed, A. G., and Wills, for the United States, relied on numerous decisions in this court, of which Romero v. United States, [1] a leading case on the subject, and which Mr. Wills noted had been argued by Mr. Black, adverse counsel here, in opposition to the positions which he would be compelled now to maintain, was one. The counsel also contended that the case had been even more than benignantly enough considered by the Land Commission and by the court below; it being, as was evident from the amendment of the petition in important particulars (afterthoughts plainly), and from the positive oath made by Madame Peralta's daughter as to having seen a petition of which no record could be found, and from other circumstances not necessary to be detailed, a case less of misfortune and accident than of a fraudulent kind.

Mr. J. S. Black, contra, acknowledging the rule set up by the other side to be generally true, sought to take the case out of it as an exception; he denied all fraud, and referring to United States v. Alviso, [2] where there was no archive evidence, and to other cases, submitted that the difficulty, suggested by the fact that the expediente was not found in the archives but was produced by claimants, was fairly explained by the reasonable presumptions, arising from the proof of a bona fides from the very beginning, confessed both by the Land Commission and the District Court, of the meritorious qualifications of the grantee; of the integrity of her documentary evidence; of its transmission to and reception from the government authorities; of the undoubted continuity of her possession and claim, accompanied by actual occupation and cultivation, as the permanent family home for a period of some ten years, and under a well-known and recognized claim of title; that it was also met and explained by the irregularity and want of system shown, as he argued, by various cases which he cited from the Appendix to Hoffman's Reports and from the California Archives and Records, to have existed in the registry and record of Mexican land grants as aforesaid. He argued also that it was accounted for by the analogy of the numerous other cases which could be cited, and which showed, as he considered, that in many claims of undoubted bona fides and merit which had been held on behalf of the government to be good and entitled to patent, the expedientes were in some manner returned to the Mexican grantees, and were thus not found in the archives, but in the possession of the claimants themselves, and were by them produced before the Land Commission or United States District Courts, unauthenticated by any archive evidence whatever.

He had himself, it was true, as much perhaps as any counsel at this bar, supported as a general rule, the rule which the other side would apply as an inflexible one to this case. But on previous cases he was stating a rule, not the exceptions to it. Of course he did not overlay his arguments as if he were writing a text-book, with a consideration of everything that might, could, would, should, or possibly ought to qualify his general propositions. The case here was different. It was an exception to a rule, and the rule was to be applied so as to subserve and not so as to destroy justice.

The whole matter rested in judicial construction. It was not an affair of statute. To apply previous decisions on general cases to a case purely exceptional, would be to judge without discrimination. 'Statutes,' said Hobart, C. J., [3] 'are like tyrants: where they come they make all void; but the common law is like a nursing father, and makes void that part only where the fault is and leaves the rest.' Even statutes, however, and statutes where the language is positive-the statute of frauds being a well-known instance-have been largely qualified so as to prevent rules intended for general cases operating to do injustice in such special ones, as they were really meant not for.

Mr. Justice DAVIS delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  1 Wallace 721; see also White v. United States, 1 Id. 660, and Pico v. Same, 2 Id. 279.

^2  23 Howard, 318.

^3  1 Modern, 36.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).