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United States Supreme Court

70 U.S. 478

Beard  v.  Federy

[Syllabus from pages 478-480 intentionally omitted]

AFTER our conquest of California, in 1846, Congress, by act of 3d March, 1851, 'to ascertain and settle the private land claims' in that State [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 secretary of the interior the tenure by which the Mission Lands [2] are held.'

A subsequent statute, [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 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, 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 [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.' [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, $3000, 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 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 inclosed 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 $5000 a year, and for costs and damages, the last alleged at $1000. 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 $2500.

After judgment for the plaintiff for one of the parcels, the case came here on error taken by the defendants. Several points were made in their behalf. They were these: Mr. Wills arguing in support of them:

1. That under the 10th section of the act of 1851-which says, in terms, that on an appeal from the commissioners to the District Court, that court shall proceed to render judgment upon the pleadings and evidence in the case-it was the duty of that court to proceed and render judgment; that, upon the refusal of the attorney-general to prosecute the appeal, the court should have dismissed the appeal or affirmed the decree of the board; that, having done neither, the case was still pending undetermined, and consequently that there had been no decree on which a patent could issue.

2. That the petition of the Bishop of Monterey to the commissioners did not show that he claimed 'by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government;' on the contrary, that it showed that the missionaries of the Roman Church had had but a permissive possession-though a long, peaceful, and unquestioned one under government protection-and, therefore, did not show right or title; but, on the contrary, showed affirmatively no right, no title. Precedents could be cited in support of this view. [6] Moreover, the 16th section of the act under which the commissioners sit required them 'to ascertain and report' to the secretary of the interior the tenure by which the mission lands were held, and by strong inference deprived them of power to pass upon the validity of the claim of the church to them. The lands in question were confessedly of this class. The board, then, had acted on a case without its jurisdiction; and its action was void. The patent founded on its void action was also and equally void. The case fell within Paterson v. Winn, in this court. [7]

3. That the grant by Governor Pico-having been, not a grant in colonization, but a sale, according to a recital on its face, made by order of the Departmental Assembly; a sale, too, to save the nation in a crisis of supreme need-vested a good title in the parties under whom Beard claimed, anteriorly to the patent to the Bishop of Monterey; a title not to be divested by any title subsequent to the conquest. The fact that this grant by Governor Pico was not submitted to the commissioners within two years from the 3d March, 1851, was unimportant. The act never meant to destroy titles complete and fully existing anterior to the conquest.

4. That if the commissioners could pass upon the claim of the church to these lands, yet, by the terms of the act of March 3, 1851, the patent is 'conclusive between the United States and the claimants only,' and does not affect the interests of third persons; language which is plain, and conformable to the principles of common law, which deprives no man of his property unless upon hearing. The patent is, therefore, not evidence against the defendants for any purpose, and as between them and the plaintiff the whole subject of title was open.

The plaintiff, therefore, having offered no legal evidence of title, as against the defendants, they should have had judgment.

A party who had no title, under any right or title derived from Spain or Mexico, acquired none as against third parties by a patent from the United States. A patent in such a case only protected the claimant against the United States. His original title or possession must be shown, as against all others.

5. That the two last parcels of land were not described with sufficient certainty; and that the complaint united in one count three distinct causes of action; and united, also, a claim for damages for the rents and profits and detention of the land, with a claim to recover possession; a position which was apparently taken by Mr. Wills without knowledge that the Federal court in California had adopted the State rule of practice in this matter as its own; a fact which the learned judge of the tenth circuit announced from the bench to him, arresting argument on that point.

6. That by striking out from the complaint or declaration the claim for the rents and profits, the court had lost jurisdiction of the case, the argument hereon being that the facts necessary to give jurisdiction must appear affirmatively in the pleadings; that here the value of the land, as shown in the pleadings, was made to depend on the amount of damages, viz., $1000, and the claim for mesne profits $5000; that these having been both stricken out, left the court, under the pleadings, without jurisdiction, and that this defect of the pleadings could not be supplied by proof or admissions made on the trial.

Mr. Carlisle, who argued the case thoroughly on principle and precedents, contra.

Mr. Justice FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  9 Stat. at Large, 631.

^2  Lands occupied by the Roman Catholic Church missions.

^3  10 Stat. at Large, 99.

^4  They terminated 7th July, 1846. See United States v. Yorba, 1 Wallace, 423.

^5  For an interesting exhibition of the various documents issued by the Governor of California, in the exigent moment here spoken of, see United States v. Workman, 1 Wallace, 753-4.

^6  Nobile v. Redman, 6 California, 225; United States v. Cruz Cervantes, 18 Howard, 553.

^7  11 Wheaton, 380.

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).